Why Talking About Feelings at Work Matters - Michelle Gibbings

A group of people sitting on bean bags in an office

Recently, the world’s favourite furry red monster, Elmo, asked the internet if everyone was doing okay.

In the post, which racked up millions of views, many people said they weren’t okay. They were depressed, sad, and broke, while some were doing okay. It was the whole gamut of emotions.

In true Elmo style, he responded, “Wow! Elmo is glad he asked! Elmo learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing. Elmo will check in again soon, friends! Elmo loves you“.

We shouldn’t just leave the checking-in to Elmo.

Creating the space so you and your team can talk about feelings at work matters, too.

Throughout the working day, you regulate your emotions. Regulating emotions is a healthy, adaptive strategy. The danger zone is when regulating emotions involves suppressing emotions and never having an outlet to talk about how you feel.

When this happens, it can give rise to what’s known as ’emotional dissonance’. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined this term, which refers to the mismatch between the emotions you are experiencing (i.e., what you genuinely feel) and the emotions you are expected to express based on rules, expectations, and the situation.

In a workplace context, this tension arises when the emotions you feel you must project because of workplace rules, culture, situation and environment differ from what you genuinely feel.

For example, a team member may be dealing with an angry and abusive customer. Their training and company policy dictates that they must always be polite regardless of the person’s language. A team member may be dealing with a stressed team member, and getting frustrated or annoyed may, similarly, only escalate the conflict. In both those examples, a person will temper their response to help manage the situation.

However, those interactions will generate an emotional response, and tempering the response creates an internal conflict that causes emotional dissonance.

The concept builds from Social Psychologist Leon Festinger‘s theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that results from holding beliefs, values or attitudes that conflict with each other. People are motivated to reduce the discomfort that inconsistency provokes by changing either their attitude or behaviour.

Both forms of dissonance create internal tension. Cognitive dissonance is between beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours, while emotional dissonance is between felt and displayed emotions.

Impacts at Work
Leaders need to understand the concept of emotional dissonance because it directly impacts their and their team’s well-being and performance.

Research has highlighted how the emotional load created by this internal conflict can negatively impact employees through elevated levels of burnout, anxiety, and absenteeism.

In a study among health and social workers, researchers Anne-Marthe Indregard and colleagues found that employees experiencing emotional dissonance reported higher levels of exhaustion and mental distress, and had a higher risk of medically certified sickness absence.

A different study by Yun-na Park and colleagues found evidence to support the contention that people experiencing emotional dissonance are less sympathetic, and, as a result, less prosocial. In their study, prosocial was defined as less willing and likely to help others.

Suppressing emotions and putting on a façade are not the foundations for a vibrant and thriving workplace.

So, how can leaders address this issue?

Open Communication
Leaders should foster an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their true feelings. This environment starts by building the foundations for psychological safety with open communication, forums to share, and empathy.

Leaders can encourage their team members to share their thoughts and feelings, especially when they’re facing challenges.

For example, at your weekly team meeting, schedule time at the start of the session for the team to talk about how they feel. In your regular one-on-ones, genuinely check in with your team members. Make sure you listen to what they say, acknowledge how they feel, and don’t immediately jump into problem-solving mode. Instead, ask what they need from you.

Emotional Intelligence
Focus on building your emotional intelligence. Leaders with high emotional intelligence can better understand and manage their own emotions, and they’re also more adept at recognising and responding to the feelings of their team members.

When your EQ is high, you’ll better notice what is happening across your team. You’ll see when someone’s behaviour shifts, such as withdrawing, becoming more augmentative, or acting out of character. These are all signs that something is going on.

Once you’ve noticed the shift, get curious and create the opportunity to check in with your team members. They’ll share when they are ready to, and they are more likely to be ready when they know you are genuinely interested in their fears and feelings.

Find the Balance Sweet Spot
Promoting a healthy work-life balance can also help reduce emotional dissonance. When employees have time to relax and recharge, they’re less likely to experience emotional exhaustion, one of the critical outcomes of emotional dissonance.

An emotionally healthy team is more likely to be engaged, motivated, and productive.

Consequently, carving out space to share and listen is a good use of your time and your team’s time.

So, what do you need to do next to avoid having emotional dissonance in your team?

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