The power of feelings at the workplace

There’s this very old myth related to work life. Once you step inside the office (both physically or virtually during these COVID-19 times), you should leave your feelings at the door. It’s a place for productivity, impartiality and efficiency, and feelings are seemingly contrary to these objectives. Reality isn’t really like that.

The truth is, work culture has been centered on developing effective tactics to improve business effort and take advantage of any momentum. Discussions on employee efficiency revolves around time allocation, effective work hours and how individuals fit in a given professional culture, but there is the other side of the coin, frequently left behind. Employees are anything but machines and their dedication in itself proves that emotional responses are a critical asset for business success. 

The work environment shouldn’t be detrimental to mental health. We’re talking about a place where people spend at least eight hours a day for at least five days. It’s important to acknowledge the value of (good) mental health, because it influences every single individual personally and, naturally, professionally. 

According to WHO, mental well-being in the workplace influences health, job performance and productivity, engagement and work relationships.Someone who feels strained or is working on a negative work environment might even fall victim to a burnout or depression. 

Feelings are expressions of individuals’ needs. By meeting those needs people unlock positive feelings, but ignoring them has the opposite effect. When businesses put in place specific measures to meet their people’s needs, they are on the right track for a  strong positive emotional workforce at their backs.

In this article, we delve into the importance of feelings at work, their impact and how, by aligning business objectives with human needs and powerful emotional forces, businesses can reinforce their culture and get stronger to surf all the waves, sometimes against the tide.

The difference between emotions and feelings

Think of emotions as being the trigger of a massive chain reaction. 

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio defines emotions as the collection of lower-level chemical and neural responses to a stimulus that move an organism towards life-maintaining behavior, and help to keep us alive by producing quick reactions to threats, rewards, and everything in between.

According to this Strategy+Business article, on the other hand, feelings are the mental manifestation of emotions, a way of making sense of the bodily experience, allowing processing and planning in response.

Emotions and feelings bring forward our survival instincts, pushing us to pay them attention. We’ve all experienced it one way or the other. For example, feeling irritable when you’re hungry or thirsty, or grumpy when you’re tired after a long day’s work. 

Feelings mirror a person’s general attitude towards other people, perhaps a company and even the value of their own work. Feelings also affect behaviors at work, job performance, job satisfaction and engagement and professional relationships. They have the power to inspire actions that can both benefit or disrupt our work life.  

When we successfully finalise a project or align completely with a business need, positive feelings push us further, energising and motivating us to continue on the same path. If what happens is the opposite, and we fail to deliver, negative feelings such as frustration, disappointment and sometimes anger slam the brakes of creativity, initiative and contribution.

So, we can clearly see the link between feelings and needs, but while it can be applied across a number of situations to improve relationships and communication, how exactly can they be applied in the work environment?

The importance of feelings in the workplace

Whether verbalised or not, feelings at the workplace determine our motivation and ability to contribute. Everything is connected. As we stated before, feelings signal needs, and addressing or ignoring these needs, in turn, influences the feelings. 

If businesses are able to acknowledge and interpret their employees’ feelings, translate them into needs, and take action to address them –engaging with what we call the feelings-needs link (see below)– they can create and nurture a wave of positive feelings, and confidence too.

When the feelings of understanding and belonging are in the air are in people’s brains, business forge workplaces both pleasant and dramatically more productive and successful. 

Feeling-needs
Source: Strategy+Business.com

The feeling-needs link is a valuable approach for both team leaders and employees to have a better understanding of the impact of feelings at the workplace. Here are three steps to consider when using it:

  1. Recognise feelings

    Although it may seem obvious, every change starts by acknowledging a fact, whether it is to change it, improve it or add it to a plan or strategy. The same applies to recognising the importance of feelings at work rather than ignoring them. Establishing a transparent and honest line of communication between managers and their teams’, for example, both parts can be open about their feelings both positive and negative, working to put words to them. 

    This is important because by giving words to a feeling it allows our brains to dive into the emotion and allow an easier processing. It’s a way to put enough distance between us and the feeling, allowing us to gain perspective.

  2. Uncover the needs

    Needs are actionable and often multidimensional. Translating the feeling into a need implies understanding, and invites compassion and kindness. Indeed it requires patience from the listener and the ability to introspect from the feeler. 

    The conversation can start by the listener asking “what do you need”, giving the individual the space and time to answer, continuing to probe until they voice their actual needs and not what they need from others. 

    This simple action provides psychological safety. As a result, people openly share their issues and allow themselves to be vulnerable. 

    Every employee wants to feel safe and that they matter. By understanding and meeting employees’ needs, businesses reduce significantly anger and disappointment and unblock motivation and creativity that ultimately improve business results. 

  3. Meet the needs

    Businesses can work on finding solutions to dissipate negative feelings and make room for more positive ones. 

    The building of trust between the two parts runs in parallel with filling the need for safety and connection. However, while listening and providing for the need of psychological safety are crucial steps, the only way to truly meet an individual’s needs is through action.

    If employees are open about their feelings and needs, leaders have to propel behavioural changes in response to those needs that will also influence the business culture.  

    Going one step further, behavioural changes must be backed up by active reinforcement, such as accountability mechanisms and even someone who advocates for a safer and kinder workplace. For example, if a manager realises that its team is exhausted and both performance and composure at work are affected negatively, they might encourage them to take some time off to recover. A concrete action in response to a specific need.

Tips on how to deal with feelings in a productive and nurturing way at work

Tapping into emotional energy is a crucial part of work culture nowadays. We gathered a few tips for both leaders and employees to know how to better deal with feelings at work in a way that is both healthy and beneficial for both parts.

  1. Don’t bottle up your feelings, give active feedback.

    Employee

    Be honest about your feelings. Instead of hiding them or telling yourself that it doesn’t matter but deep down you know it does, talk about it with your supervisor or manager. They might listen and create the space and the opportunities for you to have your needs met.

    Manager or team leader

    As a team leader, encourage honesty, openness and motivate your team to give you feedback. Emphasise that whether the opinions are negative or positive, there won’t be any repercussions, only solutions to solve any issues. Give them the time and space for them to reach out to you in their own time. These actions show you’re open to communication and that they have your full support. While hierarchy wise you’re above them, approach them with humility and as an equal member of the team.

  2. Don’t forget: You matter!

    Employee

    It’s important that you don’t forget your value in a team or in a company. Your well-being and happiness matter! Business leaders need to ensure they provide a positive and mentally safe workplace where you can be the best version of yourself both personally and professionally. Remember, happy people do best work.

    Manager or team leader

    As a leader, pay close attention to your employees and their work. If they’re making small mistakes or if it’s taking them longer to perform a task that usually takes less, or even if they’re visibly tired, check-in with them. Approach them with a nonjudgmental and compassionate way. Let them know they have your support and that of the team in case they need to talk or to relieve the workload. Encourage a share policy. 

  3. Be open to dealing with personal issues at work. 

    The myth of leaving feelings at the door when you enter work has been debunked. Sometimes it’s easy to disconnect from our personal lives when we go into the office, but at other times, that might seem like a goliathan task. Like it or not, we all have moments in our lives where the troubles from home follow us to work.

    As an employer, a team leader or even a teammate, if someone is clearly distracted or distraught because of a personal issue, be open. Give them a chance to talk about it, invite them for a coffee break, take a walk or even give them space to cry. 

    The truth is, personal issues can be very distracting and difficult to work through. By encouraging people to take a moment, whether that includes you witnessing their pain or not, they can begin to understand their emotions and process the feelings they unleashed. It might be just what they need to return to work with the same positive attitude and even come back with the feeling that they are in a positive and caring work environment.

What we think

Fabien Hautier
Fabien Hautier, Partner at PwC Luxembourg

Emotions are not only part of our personal life, but they are also part of our professional life. Understanding our emotions and learning to live with them in a positive manner is key to unlocking our emotional energy and achieving our true potential, as well as having a positive impact on the people surrounding us, whether colleagues, team mates, friends or family.

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