The Sensational Shift with Susan Bernstein, MBA, PhD
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Is it bad to feel your emotions at work?

I used to work 70, 80…even 100 hours a week as a management consultant, advising healthcare companies on their strategies. Rounding up financial information from all sorts of sources, politely pestering company employees for information, then analyzing reams data, and making spiffy PowerPoint presentations of my findings. Zippy-fast, I’d brief the senior members of our team on our recommendations for growth or acquisition or exit from the market.

The go-go-go pace, the constant frustrations of our clients, the mountains of expectations…those all wore me down. And I’d excuse myself to cry from exhaustion. Or I’d occasionally lose my temper from the sheer volume of work — and fume.

And then some seemingly wise colleague would tell me, “Don’t get emotional about work.” 

Hah! That’s like telling me, “Don’t breathe. Don’t feel. Be a robot.”

Do you feel like you’re supposed to “play neutral” at work and “never let them see you sweat?”

Well, for those of us who are awake, aware, and sensitive, that’s like telling us to strip away our humanity. No, thanks.


Your emotions make you who you are.

I recall being unable to hold back the tears when my firm pulled the plug on a healthcare research project I’d spearheaded to reform managed care. I’d poured my heart and soul into that baby. And nearly 400 sleepless hours in a single month. I mourned the loss.

I was overjoyed when a client gushed to me, sharing how she was my strongest ally in promoting a new initiative. But a week later, I discovered that she’d gone behind my back and bad mouthed me to the associate partner who was overseeing my project. Her false comments? They cost me the promotion I’d wanted so dearly. I felt a red-hot rage overcome me. And that’s putting it mildly.

Were my feelings justified? Heck, yeah.

Are your feelings at work valid, too?

Or do you ever feel like you’re supposed to “stuff” or suppress your feelings in your career? And if you’ve tried to do that, have you been successful?

Personally, I find it a ridiculous and even dangerous idea to turn off your emotions at work. Your emotions make you human. Research shows that we need our emotions for good decision making.

You feel your feelings so that you have a compass, and can find your way in an uncertain world.

But there’s a big difference between a healthy emotional climate at work and an unhealthy one.

Healthy emotion arises from the environmental circumstance of the business, like the ebb and flow of profit and loss. Or the impact of an unexpected competitor in your marketplace.

In contrast, unhealthy, dysfunctional emotion arises from negative people, like professionals with strong personalities who are striving (consciously or unconsciously) to exert their power over others.

When emotions arise in a healthy environment, we can feel our feelings, let them move through us, and then they pass. Usually quickly.

With emotions triggered by a dysfunctional environment fueled by difficult people, our feelings stick around. They’re harder to shake, because someone else’s energy is dominating the scene. Their energy is entrenched, and so our tendency is to hunker down and try to combat their negativity. Unfortunately, that’s typically a recipe for disaster.

Let’s look at three key emotions you may feel in both healthy and dysfunctional workplace. Once you can separate out the difference in the origin of your emotions, you’ll have a better grip on how to make necessary changes.

Fear: Signals a sense of threat and danger

In a healthy environment, we have fear because we’re worried about the continuity of the product, service, or business. For example, if a major competitor launches a new product that leapfrogs your company’s product, that puts your organization in danger of being unable to compete in the marketplace. You’re justified in feeling anxious, worried, or confused about how to proceed, both in terms of what you need to do on the job — and whether you need to keep your eyes open for a new job.

With this type of fear, the healthy response is to avoid becoming paralyzed and doing nothing. You’ll relieve the fear by gathering information and taking action. In a dysfunctional environment, fear shows up because we’re worried about someone retaliating against us.

For example, if your management rules by intimidation, that’s systemic. It’s cultural. When I worked at Intel, in the Andy Grove era, he was famous for saying, “Only the paranoid survive.” The air was thick with worry, spread from the top. I found it a vastly uncomfortable place to work. Fortunately, I had a manager who sheltered our team from that. As soon as she left, her successor took on the fearful grip, and would say things like “You’d better finish this project on time, or you may be out of a job.” Not very motivating. I chose to leave. That environment took years to clean up from the toxic attitudes.

Toxic organization-wide fear (whether in a whole company or a group) is very hard to clear. Find safe pockets in the organization, or find your exit strategy. 

Anger:  Arises in response to harm and power

In a healthy environment, you feel anger because a boundary has been violated. Someone has crossed a line, but without malice. It might be that as a salesperson, you’re angry that a client tells you they can’t afford the new product they promised they’d buy from you, and your commission depends on it. You may feel like someone is against you, but perhaps their budget has changed. So you get over the anger quickly and look for some new prospects.

With healthy anger, you can announce what you need, going forward, and establish a clear boundary, or move into courageous corrective action.
In contrast, anger in a dysfunctional environment arises when there’s a constant personal battle to win “power over” another professional. Someone takes the role of abuser (usually unintentionally, even if it looks intentional to everyone else), and the other person becomes the abused. You might see this with a particularly narcissistic manager, who belittles her employees. I worked for a manager who flew into a rage at the teeniest of mistakes. “What? There’s an error in this brochure! This should have been a semi-colon, not a comma! You’ve ruined this campaign!” Of course, it was no fun to be on the receiving end of her screaming matches. I walked on eggshells with her until I got myself moved into another department.

In cases of harsh anger like the one I illustrated, you have to ask yourself if it’s truly worth staying. What’s the cost to your total well-being? What are your other options? 

Depression:  Arises in response to helplessness and hopelessness

Depression shows up in a healthy working environment in response to  discouraging circumstances. You feel it as a weightiness or heaviness that comes on over time — and it’s important to feel it as a signal to “move on! One of my current clients is scrambling to get out of a department in her company because they make a product that’s becoming obsolete. She feels pretty hopeless about the future. Sure, once-upon-a-time, their software was cutting edge. But now, they’re being trumped by players with deeper pockets, richer features, and jazzier marketing. Depressing? Yes. Destructive? Only if she stays to turn the lights off!

With this type of depression, you can allow yourself to feel the sadness, but then let it empower you to rejuvenate yourself and refresh your way of working, including moving on.

But in a dysfunctional environment, depression is often triggered by malicious managers who corner their employees into feeling trapped. For example, Brian worked for a manager, Kate, who praised only certain people in their 15-person staff meetings. He was very rarely one of those people. Wisely, he asked what he could be doing to boost his impact and visibility. She gave him a project where he was an individual contributor with no other teammates. He felt crushed, particularly in staff meetings. Turns out that Kate was playing this same tactic with another employee, Dana. Brian and Dana commiserated, and also eventually jumped ship together.

If you’re depressed because of a personality at work who has a reputation for making people feel despondent, see the signals and make a shift.

What can you do about your feelings at work?

  1. I heartily encourage you to feel your feelings and name them (fear, joy, anger, sadness, depression, guilt, etc), either aloud (if you’re alone) or in a safe spot, like your private journal.
  2. Next, get in touch with the sensations that accompany your feelings. Do they make you feel heavy or light? Tight or loose? Warm or cold? Get as descriptive as you can, in a non-judgmental, neutral, present-moment way. ”I feel a tightness in my chest that’s the size of a baseball, and it’s hard and icy cold, and it seems to exert a pressure towards my back.”
  3. Take 5 to 10 minutes to allow the sensations to move and shift. Just keep breathing and noticing them. If you do this for a few minutes, the energy of the emotion will usually dissipate. Doing this helps you to anchor yourself in present time, instead of feeling the sting of an emotion triggered in the past.
  4. If the energy doesn’t dissipate, or if this emotion keeps cropping up at work, ask yourself, “Am I working with toxic people? Is this a toxic, dysfunctional environment for me?” If so, perhaps it’s time to explore a move out.
  5. If the energy does dissipate, notice when you feel relief. Then gently place a hand on your heart, give yourself some self-compassionate, caring support, and ask your heart to guide you to your next step. It might be as simple as taking a walk outdoors, or calling a friend to chat.

Emotions are a form of energy in motion, and can move through you. They will guide you in your work, if you let them. But again, if they get entrenched in a dysfunctional environment, maybe it’s time to move on.

Want some support in dealing with your emotions at work? Drop me a line and let me know what’s happening, and let me know what you’d like to shift. If it makes sense, we can set up a complimentary conversation to discuss your situation and explore how coaching can make thing so much better.

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