No matter how hard you might try, you can't just flip a switch when you step into the office and turn your emotions off. Feeling feelings is part of being human.
[The Way We Work]
A pervasive myth exists that emotions don't belong at work, and this often leads us to mistakenly equate professionalism with being stoic or even cold. But research shows that in the moments when our colleagues drop their glossy professional presentation, we're actually much more likely to believe what they're telling us. We feel connected to the people around us. We try harder, we perform better and we're just generally kinder. So it's about time that we learn how to embrace emotion at work.
Now, that's not to say you should suddenly become a feelings fire hose. A line exists between sharing, which builds trust, and oversharing, which destroys it. If you suddenly let your feelings run wild at work and give people far more information than they bargained for, you make everyone around you uncomfortable and you also undermine yourself. You're more likely to be seen as weak or lacking self awareness, so, great to say you weren't feeling well last night — you don't need to go into every lurid detail about how you got reacquainted with your half-digested dinner.
So there's a wide spectrum of emotional expression. On one hand, you have under-emoters, or people who have a hard time talking about their feelings, and on the other end are over-emoters, those who constantly share everything that's going on inside, and neither of these make for a healthy workplace.
So what's the balance between these two extremes? It's something called selective vulnerability. Selective vulnerability is opening up while still prioritizing stability and psychological safety, both for you and for your colleagues. Luckily, anyone can learn to be selectively vulnerable, with practice.
Here are four ways to get started. First, flag your feelings without becoming emotionally leaky. Bad moods are contagious, and even if you're not vocalizing what you're feeling, chances are your body language or your expressions are a dead giveaway. So if you are crossing your arms or hammering on your keyboard, your coworkers are going to know you're upset. And if you don't say anything, they might start to think it's about them and get worried. So if you are reacting to a non-work-related event, so traffic for example, just flag it. You don't need to go into detail. You can say something as simple as "I'm having a bad morning. It has nothing to do with you." Now if it's a work-related event that's causing you to feel strong emotions, that brings us to point number two.
Try to understand the need behind your emotion, and then address that need. If you suddenly start to find everyone around you irritating, sit back and reflect on that. And it might be that you're irritable because you're anxious, and you're anxious because you're worried about hitting a looming deadline. And in that case, you can go back to your team to address that need and say something like, "I want to make sure I get everything done ahead of the deadline. Can you help me put together a realistic plan to do that?" If you're thinking of sharing, try and put yourself in the other person's shoes. So if what you're about to say would help you feel more supported and better understand the situation, then go ahead and share it. But if it gives you any kind of pause, you might want to leave it out.
And finally, read the room and provide a path forward. If everyone on your team has been pulling long hours, and you notice that one of your colleagues seems particularly deflated or anxious, you can acknowledge that and show some empathy, but then try to give them something actionable that they could hold on to. And in this case, you could suggest that you go to your manager and ask that your weekly meeting be pushed back a day so you both have more time to work. You're showing you're invested in their success, but also that you care about their well-being.
When we can be honest about what we feel, and freely suggest ideas, make mistakes and just not have to hide every piece of who we are, we're much more likely to stay at the company for a long time. We're also happier and more productive.
So take a moment to reflect on the emotional expression that you bring to work each day. And if you are prone to oversharing, try editing. And if you're a little bit more reserved, look for moments when you can open up to your colleagues and be a bit vulnerable. And chances are, there will be a big difference in how people respond to you. And selective vulnerability might just become one of your most valuable tools.