Emotional Life in Organizations: It’s Real, It Hurts if We are Different

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There is no day at work that does not engender some emotion of one kind or another. Let’s face it. Our reality is our emotions and they are a part of who we are: they determine how we feel and how we behave and this in turn can hurt or heal those we come in contact. So, how we and others deal with the emotions that we bring to work each day determines what our day will be like.

Take the emotional experience of Kristen that happen at work. She is from an African country. Her command of English is good, but she speaks with an accent that requires others to be willing to listen closely and be patient with the slow rhythm of her speech. In our fast-moving world these days, people want to hurry and we want the same in our interactions.

To further complicate the emotional life of Kristen, she has a cultural work ethic that she has never spoken about to her colleagues. She prefers not to eat lunch, but to work. Her colleagues have asked her to lunch from time to time, but she has always said no. Finally, they stopped asking. Kristen began to feel isolated from her coworkers, her colleagues on the other hand, felt she was standoffish and rude and didn’t want to spend time with them. Staff members and Kristen were emotionally disengaged from the each other, creating a discomfort and distance in the relationship and in the workplace. As Kristen tells her story with tears in her eyes, she shares how deeply it hurts. She didn’t believe she could talk about it with anybody at work, so she talked about it with her kids at home. They told her to go to lunch; she doesn’t feel she should have to. Of course, She was not asked again because her colleagues were feeling rejected, and it culminated over time into avoidance and them not liking one another. To resolve what was an emotionally charged situation, we had to structure a conversation in a safe place, where truth telling could happen. Once Kristen shared her story and her experience of them, her colleagues realized they never knew how she felt. They felt bad. In sharing their stories, Kristen’s colleagues felt she didn’t want to spend time with them and that she acted as if she was better than them. The meeting enabled Kristen and her colleagues to speak to each other and to reach out and touch one another in a way that showed that they cared, creating a place of emotional safety for one another.

The question is how often we spend our time in emotionally charged situations because we are fearful of what can happen to the relationship if we speak the truth. We most often are unwilling to take a look at ourselves to see what part we play. It takes personal reflection, a time to slow down, to ask did I miss you in some way, how can I help. It means being willing to take a personal risk, perhaps even rejection, to say “I care about you, can you care about me too,” and speaking from our hearts by listening and caring enough to make a difference. Extending ourselves to create emotional safety at work supports us all.

  • B.K. Barnes

    Erline, great article. I joined this to try to reconnect with you – please write to bkbarnes@barnesconti.com