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Working with Feeling

a man working at his desk, on which sit a heart and a brain. the brain is significantly larger than the heart, and the desk appears as a "scale" tilting towards the brain.

1: A Boy and His Emotions

Let me tell you about my experience with "feelings": it's not so much that I don't want to have feelings, it's that I historically lack the awareness and skill to identify them with precision.

When you ask how I feel, it's like you're asking me a question in a language I hardly understand and barely speak. I know "good" and "bad", and, if you pry past that, I'm pretty sure I'll stumble upon "frustrated". Beyond that, I have not much to say about my emotions. They feel some combination of invisible, irrelevant, and counter-productive.

I have been this way for a long time. I remember discovering at a young age - I think 7 or 8 - that I felt "tough" when I kept my emotions on the inside. I could withstand emotional turmoil without blinking, and this was a good thing.

Over time, the guardian of my emotions become a strong and active component of my identity. This part of me is motivated by a fear that I will divulge something genuine from deep within me and it will be met with mockery, and then that this experience will somehow break me. The deeper within I go, the higher the perceived risk.

This orientation towards feelings is common among men and is a perfectly fine way to go through life. I hid my emotions for a long time while my rational mind, white knuckles on the steering wheel, sat in the driver's seat navigating well life's obstacles. I was able to build close relationships, a healthy career, and a generally pleasant life with this approach.

Eventually, though, I believe I hit this system's limit, which was felt as a desire to better know myself and more closely connect with others. As I've begun to explore my feelings, I have discovered how my boy-ish fears were holding me back from accessing my deepest creativity, intelligence, and strength.

2: Men and the Workplace

The modern workplace has been built by men (with notable but few exceptions), and thus has contours that mimic a man's way of being — particularly the ambitious, productive, and anxious among us, forever seeking to be greater than we are and, in doing so, separating ourselves from those very things that make us supremely great in the first place.

Over the past two generations, we've taken a fringe economic theory, that greed is good, and operationalized it to the extent that it has become an invisible force shaping the texture of our every day. We have forgotten it is just an assumption, and like all assumptions it is sometimes wrong. A belief that inevitably results from this theory: to grow the business will grow the self. Is this true? Some days, yes; most days, plainly not.

Our collective behavior reveals an unspoken truth: our truest workplace ideals are stability, progress, and growth, and our unit of measurement for these values is the US Dollar. Within this context, emotions appear as either irrelevant to success or counter to it.

So regardless of our individual wiring, as we ride our career train, we learn to stifle our emotions for the sake of fitting in, much like a young boy. We rule with intellect and reason, and we imagine they will be enough to get the job done.

3: What is lost?

The core belief driving the emotional development of both men and workplaces is this: emotions are counter to reason and to engage with them fully is a predecessor of instability.

The reality of life is the opposite: emotions are complementary to reason and to engage with them fully is a predecessor of growth.

Ignoring emotions is bad for our hearts, our minds, our teams, our communication and our decision-making. It is bad, ultimately, for business.

On the individual level, repressing emotions increases our suffering. The avoidance of an emotion like fear, playfulness, or sadness will always lead to a "protective" emotion like anger, anxiety, or resignation. These secondary responses are dysregulating in that, left unattended, they lead to behavior that further reinforces the feeling: overworking to avoid emptiness, avoiding direct conversations, refusing help, etc.

Another overlooked value of emotions: they are a core element of our moment-to-moment experience. When we neglect our emotions, we neglect a world of possibility within and around us. We dampen our motivation, creativity and connectedness to the outside world. In this way, to refuse our sadness is to refuse our being fully alive.

On the group level, repressing emotions decreases our productivity. There is no such thing as hiding our emotions from others. There is only repression, which will transform them into the protective emotions mentioned above. Others will be able to sense our emotions through our vocal cues, body language, and facial expressions. And because our emotions are contagious, the rest of the group is likely to start feeling the same stress and anger that we do.

Our repressed emotions will also harm group communication. Because others can sense how we are feeling, they will also (perhaps subconsciously) become aware that we are not saying how we are feeling. They will notice our unwillingness to hold honest, difficult dialogue, and this observation will be an unspoken cue that it's not safe to tell the truth. Your group's exchange of information just took a huge hit...

Repression is also bad for decision making. When we have no awareness of our feelings, we tend to mistake them for facts. When we don't realize that anxiety is present, we think that our opinion must be "correct" because it comes closest to resolving our anxiety. Our thinking, and thus our behavior, tends to be more black-and-white, and we are less likely to seek out and consider alternative viewpoints.

For the reasons above, a lack of emotional awareness will literally make the entire group less intelligent...

4: Emotional awareness and group intelligence

Research from MIT proves: emotional awareness makes groups smarter. Two highlights:

(1) Team intelligence is a real thing. Meaning: teams are not simply as smart as their individual team members. When a group of people come together to solve a task, they create a new shared resource, one called "collective intelligence", from which they draw solutions.

(2) A significant contributor to "collective intelligence" is a team's overall emotional perceptivity, measured by how accurately they can identify a person's emotions from a photograph of their eyes. Think about this: teams whose members are more emotionally perceptive are better at solving intellectual problems like word puzzles. (Not surprisingly, the same study found that the more women on a team, the smarter the team is). Reason and intellect are not as straightforward as we believe them to be.

5: Working with Feeling

We are in the process of discovering new ways of working. The COVID pandemic and subsequent surge in WFH is a small glimpse of a larger realization: many of our foundational assumptions about how we *should* do work are arbitrary and counterproductive.

So let this be another wave in the ocean of change: let's learn to work with our feelings. I do not suggest that we should be working with our feelings alone - rather that we need to expand our emotional capacities to make more room for our full range of human intelligence. As explained in the previous section, the prevailing working environment is in opposition to many of the cognitive tasks that we must carry out at work: thinking, learning, experimenting, and growing. When it comes to solving the complex problems before us, our big ol' brains are in the way.

Here are some ideas to help apply what's been described above. They are simple suggestions. You will know best what fits your organizational context, and it very possibly is not on the list below. Be your own guide and trust your self.

  1. Check in with yourself. Spend a few moments each day exploring your feelings. What do they have to say? What do they want for you?

  2. Seek guidance. This journey is better with support. If and when you need support, talk to a therapist or join a group focused on mental health and well-being.

  3. Full team participation. Feelings hide in silence, and groups that elicit participation from all members are smarter groups. In work meetings, require all participants to contribute to important dialogue by going around the group.

  4. Ask thoughtful questions. Foster an environment that is curious and respectful of emotions. Ask people about their struggles, excitements, and fears. Ask what people are holding back, and always be willing to answer these questions yourself.

  5. Share your feelings: When relevant to work, share what your emotions are telling you and ask others how they're feeling. This will help separate feelings from facts, which will help increase group understanding and make better decisions. Your feelings should not take over the whole house, and if you don't give them a room to be comfortable in, eventually they will.


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