Embracing the palette of Human emotions

“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour.” Brené Brown

I love this picture because it intrigues me. It makes my energy change, because I’m never quite sure what the artist wanted to say with each colour. This can be likened to emotions – the kaleidoscope journey of visualising emotions and getting to grips with your emotions. It reminds me of awe or wonder in Atlas of the Heart, where Brené Brown tells us that we can often feel overwhelmed by the vastness of something that is almost incomprehensible.

Emotional sense-making with your inner team

Sense-making is becoming more and more important in our complex environment. We need to acknowledge our emotions and experiences and bring them together consciously and constantly. Susan David, a Psychologist and Harvard Medical School Emotions Researcher talks about ‘emotional granularity’ and the fact that learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be transformative. This is not something we are necessarily taught to do, and not a practice we are used to. I always remember feeling very emotional when my young son brought me a picture of his ‘hand of emotions’: each finger was a different colour and represented a different emotion. It was his way of making sense of his experience of COVID, a simple idea to formalise a complex phenomenon in his current emotional state. The need to express it led to a creative way of finding the resources to do so with the vocabulary he had.

If humans are about belonging to something bigger, and the key to belonging is human connection, then we need to learn to connect emotionally to ourselves and to others. I often have this discussion with the teams I work with about how they express emotions at work. There are countless emotions throughout the day: bored in a meeting, excited after a presentation that went well, happy to see colleagues, or stressed about the outcome of a project meeting. The list is endless, and so too are our emotional reactions. I often use emotion cards with leaders and teams to look at the fundamental questions of how they want people to feel in the workplace. Simple enough, right? Maybe not…

As ever, we must start with self-awareness. How do you manage and regulate your emotions? Do you check in regularly with your inner leadership team? I love the idea that all emotions are welcome, just like all parts of self are welcome, in our internal systems. Dick Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is based on the premise that our normal healthy state is not a unified mind, but a multiplicity mind. We don’t experience ourselves as a single entity and we are aware of multiple voices and sub-personalities. This is the same for emotions – we are not just one regulated emotion. Being the all-knowing, non-vulnerable leader too often remains the ultimate aim, but it is really a façade. Self-awareness and self-management are the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and we must look at our vulnerable parts and our gut feelings to really tune in to different ideas, sensations and emotions. I discuss this and more in my podcast with Wendy Kendall (listen here).

A lot of us have acquired and honed our reactive tendencies to make sure that we don’t show any vulnerability (at work or at home!). The people-pleasing habit is widespread amongst the leaders I work with, as they push emotions back into the box and sit on the lid – the pressure-cooker effect. Letting go of some of this pressure is vital, and although emotions at work can be frowned upon, they are actually the life blood of the relationships that run the system.

However, we often only welcome the more positive emotions, like happiness and enthusiasm; sadness and fear are usually awkward, taboo and undiscussed. And this despite fear being very prevalent in organisational culture – fear of being wrong, fear of not fitting in, fear of not being seen to be who we think other people think we should be, etc. This myriad of emotions imparts an emotional aspect to the culture. It is a layer that lies beneath the cognitive layer and sits at the deepest level of Ed Schein’s culture model, according to which the elements of culture are the least visible, and the underlying assumptions (and associated emotions) go unsaid and sometimes unnoticed, but never unfelt! While ignoring emotions may result sometimes in healthy competition, it’s just as likely to create a strong culture of envy and fear, which can erode trust and undermine collaborative efforts. Every organisation has an emotional culture, even if it is one of denial or suppression, and the patterns remain in the memory of the system.

Emotional culture in the workplace

The truth is, despite the progress in various areas of business, advancement in tackling emotional wellness at work has been disappointingly slow. The consequences of neglecting this vital component are more severe than many leaders realise. A more complex and uncertain world also produces more emotional reactions both from humans and systems. We must name, claim and frame these emotions to let things unfold into a space where we can speak openly. When employees feel emotionally included, they are more likely to collaborate effectively, communicate openly, and support each other, leading to stronger team cohesion and improved overall performance. A workplace that ignores the emotional health of its staff can face high attrition rates and low morale. It hits the bottom line too, as emotions impact interactions with customers: employees who are able to empathise with customers’ emotions and respond appropriately can enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Creating an emotionally inclusive workplace starts with understanding the spectrum of emotions that employees experience and offering a supportive space where individuals feel safe to express their feelings without fear of judgement. This can be achieved in simple ways, such as regular check-ins, mental health days, team collaboration checks and access to professional counselling and support services. Mollie Rogers and I discuss this in our recent podcast (listen here), and explore the role of emotional inclusion in building environments where people can thrive.

image : Lilia Daffi : Human Systems Practitioner programme

Emotionally mature cultures

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is about how to measure culture change, and more importantly, the ROI. Can the figures be plugged into a dashboard to report on how we’re doing? The answer of course is not as black and white in reality but yes, it is possible to measure culture change and yes, there are parameters that can be defined. In fact, it is crucial to define the change you want to see in your organisation before you dive headlong into the roadmap and actions.

Assessing the emotional maturity of a culture is complex and multifaceted, and involves understanding the collective emotional literacy, intelligence, behaviours, values and norms. There will also be underlying patterns and assumptions that are running these norms. The starting point is awareness of our own patterns and feelings: the biggest challenge in any situation is ultimately the way we think and, more specifically, the way we feel. This will push us to react, with or without understanding what is happening. If we react spontaneously and do not take ownership of the emotion – this is the way they MADE me feel – the conversation with ourselves stops and the ensuing narrative remains in the system and is projected out in our interactions with others. The name / claim / frame trio can help here to look at what triggered the reaction – how did I react and feel? Is that helpful or not in this situation? Do I need to step back and reframe?

I often use these indicators to evaluate the emotional maturity of a culture:

Emotional literacy: Listen to how people talk about their emotions. Do they mainly use binary language or is it more nuanced? Is it wholly positive and always to please people or is there some dissension? Are emotions conveyed in an authentic way?

Emotional regulation: Look at how people handle their emotions. Do they express their feelings in healthy and constructive ways, or is there a prevalence of outbursts, aggression, or suppression of emotions?

Constructive conflict resolution: Consider how conflicts are resolved. Is there open dialogue, active listening, and compromise, or do conflicts escalate into hostility or avoidance? Are there healthy challenges, clear boundaries and open conversations?

Decision-making: Consider how collective decisions are made. Is it consensus and harmony, or is it deep democracy where all voices are heard and points of view are debated? Is there absence of objection or fear of speaking up moreso?

Vulnerability and trust: Is there a willingness to be vulnerable and transparent about emotions and experiences ? Do people trust that they will be supported and respected when they share their vulnerabilities ?

Empathy and compassion: Assess the level of empathy and compassion displayed towards others, especially towards those who are marginalised. Is there a sense of understanding, kindness, and support for others’ experiences and perspectives?

Creative resilience: Evaluate how individuals and the community respond to adversity. Is the starting point scarcity or abundance? Is there a tendency to use adversity as an opportunity to do something else, or does adversity lead to widespread blame or victimhood?

Communication styles: Consider the communication norms. Are people able to communicate honestly, assertively, and respectfully ? or is there a prevalence of passive-aggressive behaviour, manipulation, or dishonesty?

Self-awareness: Assess the level of self-awareness and introspection. Do people take responsibility for their actions, acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, and actively seek personal growth and development?

Powerful coalitions and social support networks: Look at the strength of the networks. Powerful coalitions require communities of practice, intention and curiosity. Are there systems in place to provide emotional support, encouragement, and solidarity during times of need?

Cultural values: Consider the values that are emphasised. Are qualities like integrity, empathy, authenticity, and resilience prioritised and encouraged? Have people defined what this may look like?

Attitudes towards mental health: Evaluate how mental health issues are perceived and spoken about. Is there openness to discussing mental health and seeking professional help ? Is it accepted as part of a normal discussion ?

Generational and cultural patterns: Notice the generational and cultural differences in emotional expression and coping mechanisms. Are there shifts in attitudes and behaviours towards emotional maturity across different age groups? Do different cultures need different approaches?

Cultures are not static and cannot be ‘fixed’. They are constantly evolving, diverse and dynamic, just like mindsets. As with any readiness analysis, there can also be variations in emotional maturity within different sub-cultures or communities, and we need to learn to ‘read’ this emotional layer. As leaders, we must put the emphasis on building emotional resilience and coping skills to navigate challenges and setbacks effectively. If we acknowledge the ups and downs of life while maintaining a sense of optimism and perseverance, we can move forward both individually and together.

In a culture of emotional openness, we should observe and feel several key dynamics: honest and authentic communication; active listening; vulnerability and trust; and empathy and understanding. Operationally, this means having open dialogue around difficult issues and stepping into a more constructive discussion around conflicts and decisions as a normal habit. Conflict in emotionally mature cultures can be reframed and seen as an opportunity for growth rather than as something to be avoided. In this environment, individuals engage in constructive dialogue, seeking resolution of conflicts, and decisions are made based on mutual understanding rather than power.

As ever, the quality of relationships is the key to building emotionally open cultures. A culture where strong interpersonal relationships built on trust, mutual respect, and support are valued and encouraged. A culture where people feel comfortable reaching out for help and offering assistance to others in times of need. Recognition that everyone faces struggles at some point and that it’s okay to ask for help is a key element to creating this environment, as is seeking emotional support, which then becomes instrumental in creating the conditions for adaptive and innovative ways of working. We lay the foundational blocks for a culture of inclusion through empathy, by opening up the way we talk about emotions and encouraging diversity of emotional expression. Leaders must acknowledge that individuals may experience and express emotions differently based on their backgrounds, experiences, cultures and identities. This helps to normalise difference as a positive lever and open the space for curiosity and emotional intelligence.

Overall, we must strive for a sense of belonging, acceptance, and support that allows individuals to thrive and develop meaningful connections with others. As we navigate the complexities of the modern work landscape, let us not forget the human element that remains at its core. It’s about genuine care for the well-being of the people who make up our organisations and help businesses thrive. As technology becomes more and more present, we need above all to remain and grow that which keeps us human.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course : https://bit.ly/HSP_TFV

Suzie Lewis

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