The tears well up in Ashley’s eyes, she tries desperately to stop them, hide them, but, they stream unchecked down her face. John pushes back his chair from the table, and storms from the meeting room. The usually bubbly and energetic Ann, dejectedly looks down, there is no light in her eyes, no welcoming smile. Seth stares ahead impassively, silent, stoic, and seemingly oblivious to his surrounding and peers and he says nothing.
Have you ever observed or experienced any of these “not so happy” emotional reactions in the workplace. Those swells of emotions; that fit of anger; the burst of tears; the blank hard stare of a colleague, team member, supervisor or direct report. Did you find it Awkward? Annoying? Inappropriate? Uncomfortable? Unprofessional? Regardless of what your views are on such emotional displays in the workplace, they are not uncommon and should not be taken lightly or brushed aside.
Like it or not, the reality is that, the workplace is made up of people, and people have emotions that are often times expressed at work. Truth be told, not all the issues affecting employees and their performance originate on the job. Some of the factors causing emotional outbursts or provoking emotional responses in employees, might be internal to the job, external to the job or both. And though, you have often heard the saying that, “people should not take their problems to work”, people in fact do. I am by no means advocating that people take their personal issues and problems to work and vent their frustrations on other members of their teams.
However, I submit that, since the average employee spends 8-12 hours at work, it is not far-fetched or unusual for tempers to flare, emotions to run high, tears to flow, or for tension to emerge between supervisors and direct reports, among coworkers and within the ranks of leadership as well. If you have never had any of these experiences (been overwhelmed by emotions at work) or observed them, you are probably lucky. Never judge the person who has. People are all wired differently, triggered by different things and likely to respond to work pressures, stress, failures, bad news, and personal matters differently.
What are some of the factors that could cause these emotional reactions on the job?
There are many different internal factors (related to the job or the organization) that are likely to produce emotional responses in employees on the job. These include but are not limited to:
• Voluntary/ involuntary separation (for the employee or colleague).
• Transfer from one unit/branch/location to another.
• Unfavorable performance reviews or feedback.
• Failure on a big project.
• High stress level relating to long hours on the job, volume of work, difficult relationships on the job).
The external factors are those factors relating to the employee’s personal life (outside of the job and the organization), that might be affecting their performance, attitude or mental/emotional well-being. Some of these domestic/personal issues might include:
• A sick child/relative.
• Death of a loved one/friend.
• Personal ill-health(diagnosis of serious illness).
• Divorce, separation or any other marital problems.
• Parenting problems.
• Financial hardships resulting from the loss of income from a spouse or head of household.
Therefore, it is not unusual for employees to be affected by both internal and external factors at the same time, resulting in a decline in their emotional well-being, performance on the job and general morale.
Imagine the scenario with Ashley. Unknown to her supervisor, Ashley has experienced some difficult personal/domestic issues that have affected her performance on the job. Ashley’s supervisor has raised concerns about performance which she has also acknowledged. Ashley commits to improving her performance, and her supervisor commits to supporting her. Over the following months, Ashley shows some signs of improvements in her performance, but not enough to allay the concerns of her supervisor. Ashley’s supervisor schedules a meeting to discuss with Ashley the need for urgent improvements. Though he is careful and fair in his approach, Ashley breaks down and starts to cry in the meeting. In this instance, Ashley’s emotional burst of tears may have nothing to do with the fairness of his/her supervisor or the accuracy of the feedback given. Ashley might have been very overwhelmed by both the internal and external factors mentioned above and the meeting was just a trigger.
What then is an appropriate response for the manager/supervisor?
As a starting point, responsibility for managing emotions in the work place is each employee’s responsibility. It is important that all employees, (supervisors and coworkers) recognize and acknowledge that these things happen, and are likely to happen in the workplace. No one is immune for even strong people/personalities have breaking points. People just manifest their emotions differently. Employees like Ann might sink into deep depression. John might swear and utter inappropriate words in anger or frustration, and Seth might simply “shut down”. These scenarios are highly likely, for it is particularly difficult for people to divorce themselves from their personal lives and be two different persons. The presence of any of these triggers (internal or external) in an employee’s life, might easily reach boiling point and explode at work.
Therefore, managers/supervisors have a specific role to play, if and when these varied emotional responses are played out on the job. Supervisors have to be especially mindful and aware that of issues/life events that might threaten to derail employees and affect their performance on the job. With this in mind, supervisors have the responsibility to take the time to get to know the members of their teams. You can’t effectively manage people you don’t know, or understand (i.e. Their personalities, aptitudes, attitudes and work ethic). In the instance that an employee display emotional reactions on the job, the supervisor should probe deeper or carefully observe the employee to assess if there is an underlying problem. If and when they are able to pinpoint the issue/concern, the supervisor should display empathy and compassion to the distressed/stressed employee and find ways to support.
Additionally, managers should also demonstrate sufficient emotion intelligence to be able to manage each employee differently. Some employees might not be bothered by a sharp tone, strong or firm words or pressure coming from a manager in his/her call for improved performance. But for another employee, a coaxing or gentler approach, heaping praises while pointing out gaps, might be more effective approach. Managers by their own actions and leadership styles, should foster a safe environment where employees can have the confidence to share whatever issue(s) that might be affecting them to get help/support. This also means that, trust and confidentiality must be hall marks of the manager’s approach.
What is the employee’s responsibility?
As mentioned earlier, the employee should also shoulder some of the responsibility for managing his /her own emotions in the workplace. Employees have a responsibility (an obligation even) to maintain some semblance of professionalism, though grappling with difficult situations/pressures internal and external to their jobs. Employees should always demonstrate respect for self, customers, peers, and be ever mindful not to breach the policies of the organization.Contending views with peers, negative feedback, stress caused by the volume of work/strict deadlines, disagreement with supervisors are all normal.
By being aware of their own emotions, their own triggers and how they are feeling, employees might be able to excuse themselves from a meeting to regain lost composure. If external factors are impacting their performance, employees must be mature, honest and willing to approach their supervisor or colleagues, and explain that, they are experiencing a challenge, and might need some support, space or time. The presence of a life event or personal issues is no excuse to shirk one’s responsibilities, “shut down” or disrespect fellow team members. Should this ever occur, the employee must be quick to apologize and strive never to repeat same.
It is also important that employees practice the Q-TIP (Quit Taking It Personally) principle on the job. Tension among peers about the approach to a project at work, constructive criticisms, failures and “stretch assignments”, (that seem overwhelming or unreasonable at one point in time) can ultimately benefit you in the long run. They may test your capabilities, your will, and even your talents.But the successful results/outcomes they produce might surprise you, and make you happy you were pushed, and that you persevered.
Please note as well that, the display of emotions in the work place is not bad. It just needs to be managed. It does not mean that the employee is weak, or unprofessional. We are never to judge or be judge when we demonstrate any of these emotional responses. For as we strive for personal and professional growth and development, we will never know where our respective journeys will take us, the life events that will change, shape or disrupt our lives. As such, we should always remember that people are people first, they are not their jobs, their titles nor their roles.
“What do we live for, if not to make the world a bit less difficult for each other?”
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