Learning to laugh, cry and scream at work

emotional baggage

Most people think of the workplace as an emotion-free zone. Dispassionate reason based on facts is supposed to rule supreme.

In fact, the workplace has as much emotion as the rest of human experience; we just suppress it at work.

And instead of going away, those emotions leak out in undesirable ways, from passive aggression, to hostility redirected in the home front, to stress and physical ailments.

Increasingly, research and experience are showing that acknowledging the emotional content of workplace relations and dealing with them in healthy, conscious ways makes for smoother work relations, happier workers and higher achievement.

Rather than deny the existence of emotions at work, more companies and leaders are valuing the practice of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

So once you recognize the reality of emotions at work, what do you do with them? Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Susan David and Christina Congleton lay out a brilliant strategy for the healthy handling of emotion in the workplace.

Their basic strategy: acknowledge and name your emotions; accept that you have them and then choose to act based on your values, not your emotional response.

To that, I’d add these moves:

  • Know that you have five basic emotional states: fear, joy, anger, sadness and sexual feelings. Our other emotional states are mixtures of these (embarrassment is a combination of fear and sadness that we will be called out on something; excitement a mixture of joy and fear; envy is anger and sadness). Then practice just noticing and labeling these emotions in yourself.
  • Get to know your physical cues for your emotions. A tightening feeling in your jaw could be your clue that you are angry about something. Butterflies in the stomach, a sign you are feeling fear, etc. Learning your own personal “tells” will help you recognize when emotions are welling up and starting to affect you.
  • Recognize that you are not your emotions, and that you have a choice as to how long you feel them and how you let them affect your actions. It’s not accurate to say “I’m angry,” or “You make me angry.” We are not literally the emotion of anger, and someone else cannot cast a spell on us to turn us into anger. We are choosing to have the emotional experience of anger. Once we know it’s a choice, we can begin thinking about whether that is the experience we want.

Becoming emotionally intelligent allows us to choose our actions based on what we want, rather than our unacknowledged emotional states. That sounds like a big leap in workplace productivity.

Want to find out your Emotional Intelligence Quotient? Try this fun quiz.

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The age of vulnerability


Katharine Viner, Deputy Editor of the Guardian newspaper, delivered a tremendous speech recently about how the digital transformation affects journalism. Check it out here, or if you don’t have a lot of time, read this excellent summary from PaidContent.

Her basic point: digital changes everything. It’s not just a new platform for the same old thing. It’s a fundamentally different way of doing business as a journalist.

I’d say the same thing is true of any business that is being disrupted by the instant and interactive availability of information (which is just about any business these days).

Viner’s knock-out insight is that telling stories (aka being a journalist) these days requires openness and interaction with the audience. No longer do the masses just sit back and buy whatever you are selling (or writing). They have a voice and will use it, either in comments, on Facebook and Twitter or on their own web sites.

What this means is saying you are right because you own the printing press, or the TV transmitter, or the factory, or the restaurant is no longer enough. It’s a dialog, a more genuine human interaction.

And here’s what is really cool: real, valuable human interaction requires vulnerability. If you are really open to hearing from the other person, you are opening yourself to hearing things you may not like: criticism, better ideas, raw emotion, etc. You might even fail, drive away readers or just plain blow it.

Opening to these possibilities is anathema to traditional business (after all, business is all about eliminating vulnerabilities) and to most humans. It takes a lot of self-assuredness and humility to put yourself out in public with a statement, product, flavor or style of dress.

And, it’s also where the biggest payoff is for us as individuals and as businesses.

If we live our lives or run our businesses from impregnability, we are immune to criticism or feedback or competition. We also are immune to connection, love, learning and deep creativity.

For a good dive into this side of the vulnerability equation, check out this TED talk from Brene´Brown.

So the good news about disruption is that it gives us the chance as businesses and as individuals to become vulnerable and reap the greater rewards of connection, rather than spend our time building ever-higher ramparts and cutting ourselves off.

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Note to self: Pay attention! (real attention)

check your phones

We’ve all been there, checking our email or the latest Facebook ping instead of attending to the actual humans around us.

This recent story from Huffington Post nails it: putting our attention on our handsets instead of humans kills our connection to others. Sure, we can keep up with a conversation or meeting while checking email, grunting and nodding at the appropriate times. But the real juice of being with others is not trading words; it’s connecting at an emotional level to build the trust, common purpose and support we want to do great things, whether those great things are being in love, building a business or enjoying a friendship.

A good indicator of the health of your relationships or your organization might be to count the number of times people glance at their phones when they are with others.

Oh, and one other thing: pulling out your phone when you are with someone else is basically rude.

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Missing the target

targetI was listening to a presentation from the leader of a hospitality industry company the other day, watching as he recounted with pride all the millions they had invested over the past year to improve their product, the many changes they had made in response to customer feedback, the attention they put on providing an ever-high-quality consumer experience.

It was impressive. But it all fell flat for me when I matched up all that investment with the company’s culture and mission, and the daily employee experience.

I asked this smart, driven executive to describe his company’s culture and mission in two sentences. He couldn’t do it.

Instead, I got several rambling paragraphs about how their mission is to make the customer’s life stress-free and enjoyable. And when I talked to employees, they had no idea what they were supposed to do other than follow orders, be nice to guests and try to boost the company’s net promoter score above where it was the previous year.

So here we have a company that is highly motivated to please its customers and is willing to invest millions of dollars each year in new facilities and programs to do just that. They are firing lots of arrows, but they have no clear target and no clear method for getting the arrows on target. They are just hosing down the general area of the target with as many arrows as they can afford.

This is more than an academic exercise. A recent study by Deloitte consultants confirmed once again that businesses with a clear purpose, especially one that is grander than just getting a better NPS score, have better financial results.

You can’t reach your destination if you don’t know where you are going and how you are getting there. Corporate mission is the destination and corporate culture is the means for getting there.

And one of the really great things about crafting and living a well-defined corporate mission and culture is that is costs very little. All it takes is a company-wide willingness to be honestly introspective, open and innovative in figuring out what you are about, what you want to be about and how you are going to involve all of your colleagues and employees in doing that.

(For some great profiles of companies that have done just this, check out “Small Giants” by Bo Burlingham.)

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Competing with yourself


Meredith and Scripts Networks, both large legacy media companies in the lifestyle space, are making strides to branch out in new areas of digital media. The NY TImes profiled their efforts in this article.


What’s impressive is that they are not just posting their magazine or cable television stories and out-takes on the web, but instead they are creating entirely new video content for the web.


This incremental content has the best chance for attracting incremental revenue. And the best chance for learning the new medium that is enabling their competitors on blogs and YouTube.


Meredith is setting out to create entire original series online – an independent over-the-top video play. It’s a smart way to leverage its magazine brands like Better Homes and Gardens into video, perhaps some day creating a cable network, or bypassing cable altogether in favor of a YouTube or other online video channel.


Even more impressive is Scripts’ over-the-top network ULive. It’s impressive because they already have a large cable TV presence. So going over the top is potentially competing with their cable offerings, and is also exactly the sort of thing the cable operators that pay Scripts for The Food Network and other channels don’t want to see.


Smart moves powered by guts.

Photo: iStockPhoto


Down with hard work!


Often when we are in trouble, we buckle down and try to work our way out of it. And that can be helpful when the problem is one of quantity – not enough bricks, not enough sales calls, etc.

But more often than not, the issue we face as companies or individuals is qualitative instead of quantitative. And in those instances, it’s creativity that counts – coming up with a better product, making a better sales pitch, finding a new way to connect with customers, new ideas for lowering costs, etc.

As Daniel Pink explains brilliantly in his book “Drive,” for qualitative issues, hard work is not very helpful. Instead, what helps is creating space and motivation for creativity.

How many people have faced this scenario: a pressing problem stares you in the face, so you sit down and think hard to find a creative solution. Not much comes. Dejected, you leave your desk and head home, vowing to hit it harder the next day. Then, in the shower that next morning, between thoughts of breakfast and what train to catch, the solution comes to you.

That is creating space for creativity.

So next time, instead of chaining yourself to your desk to find a solution, think about the problem a little bit, then go out for a walk or coffee or call a good friend about nothing in particular and see if something sprouts up in that space.

Don’t work harder.

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When Success Kills

fail sign


It’s great to be a success. Whether for a company or a person, winning has its rewards. And that is all well and good until the game changes. Then, ironically, the more used you are to winning, the less likely you are to succeed in times of change.

Some reasons why:

  • Habit: individuals and organizations just get used to doing things a certain way and processes can be slow to change, especially as bureaucracy builds up over time.
  • Optimization: diverting any resources or attention away from the winning play seems like a waste. If you’ve got the winning formula, then scale it up and go full speed in that direction.
  • Greed: especially for publicly traded companies the need to keep going back to the tree where the honey was last time is intense. Investigating other trees is a waste of time; just pull out all the honey you can from known hives.
  • Fear: past success gets comfortable and predictable. Trying something new is unpredictable and uncomfortable – you might fail.

This is why in times of disruptive change (which is just about all the time these days), the most successful incumbent players are often least able to adapt to the new game.

Interestingly, turning around these habits of success has almost nothing to do with acquiring new skills or building new businesses and everything to do with attitude and expectation. The attitudes and expectations of start-ups and incumbents are radically different.

So, how can incumbent players – people and groups – create places to foster new attitudes and ways of thinking? That is where the solution lies.

(For a great read on this and other problems of disruption, check out “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clay Christensen.

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