Embracing the Importance of Emotions in the Organizational Ecosystem
Making the language of emotion part of our everyday interactions
“What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?” author Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing wonders in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Her answer: “I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms.” When Brené Brown asked British actress Sarah Niles, “You, Sarah, are called to be really brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it and taste it in your throat. What’s the first thing you do?” Niles’ rapid response was, “Breathe in, breathe out, and sit with it.”
Lo that the rest of us could learn to respond as well as these wise women would to this sort of extreme emotional angst. It’s certainly a level of mindfulness to aspire to. Not just for us as individuals, but more importantly, one that we would do well to actively teach to everyone in our organizations. It’s not easy work, I know. I’ve been at it for years, and I still have a long way to go. Eventually, though, we can:
- – Get to know ourselves well enough to anticipate the emotions we are likely to experience.
- – Learn to identify the signs in both our bodies and in our minds that those emotions have arrived.
- – Be ready to respond effectively to the emotional swings we experience under pressure.
- – Get more comfortable conversing openly about emotions in our everyday work.
- – Begin to have conversations about our emotions, without blaming or pointing fingers, in constructive ways that we can convert into positive outcomes for all involved.
This sort of effective engagement with emotions is, I have learned over the years, an essential element in helping to craft the kind of regenerative organizational ecosystems which we would all likely like to be a part of.
All that said, the sad reality in many workplaces doesn’t reflect this way of being. In most organizations, talking about feelings like fear, anger, shame, joy, or jealousy is more reasonably likely to lead folks to lash out, lapse into bad old behaviors, shut down, or slip into sarcasm. In Being Peace, Thích Nhất Hạnh shares, “There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, ‘Where are you going?’ and the man on the horse yells back, ‘I don’t know. Ask the horse.’” It’s funny, but like most good humor, all too true. In an unpracticed emotional workplace, the horse might as well be running our meetings, or at least, big parts of our lives. At an extreme, unprocessed emotions lead people to quit too quickly, idly complain, lay blame on their bosses, or attack coworkers unconstructively. Without the tools and support to manage emotions effectively, all of us are likely to unwittingly make multiple bad decisions, engage in unproductive conflicts, and get defensive about our decisions. Unacknowledged emotions can create a nearly endless series of unnecessary struggles. We may talk angrily about tactics, but below the surface, the truth is, we’re often terrified. Or we get into arguments over strategy when the underlying anxiety might be about shame. If you’re anything like me, you’ve done all of these and then some.
I’ve put off writing about emotions in the context of the organizational ecosystem for quite a while now. I touched on the subject in Secret #31 in Part 3, and that, I have reminded myself repeatedly, seems to have worked out well. Logic, however, does not alter how we feel, and “success” doesn’t in the least reduce the anxiety that still subverts my spirit and, pretty much every day, starts to hold me back. The critical voices in my head remind me regularly that I’m anything but an expert in a field in which people spend lifetimes studying, writing, and working. Fear of failure, shame, angst about lack of expertise, and the expectation of embarrassment, all come up quickly for me, reminding me, often rather rudely, that there are probably millions of good books on the subject, thousands of classes taught, and conferences convened on the subject every year. (Does anyone not have “imposter syndrome?” To paraphrase Brené Brown, “If they don’t, I haven’t yet met that person.”) Acknowledging all that and then some, as I’ve taught myself to do in most of my life though, I’m gonna breathe deeply, sit with the stress as Sarah Niles suggests, and then take a mental walk through the fear to see what I find on the other side. Maybe, like Anna Tsing, I’ll discover some magical mushrooms. As Shawn Ginwright says, “There is power in our vulnerability; and our capacity to share parts of ourselves, even the parts we hide from, gives us enormous strength.”
In the context of the organizational ecosystem metaphor, I have imagined emotions to be like the weather. The image has helped me greatly in getting my mind around them more effectively. I often still struggle to understand and/or share my emotional state effectively, but having lived in the American Midwest my whole life, I know the weather well. I check it regularly, and like most folks, I have little trouble talking about it. I never doubt that whatever it might be like today, it will probably be different tomorrow, and I’m quite competent, like most adults, at quickly adapting my plans to compensate for whatever it turns out to be. As I wrote in Secret #31:
No matter how much we might want to, we can never really “control” our emotions; whether we like them or not, they are, like the weather, what they are. What we do have, though, is a high degree of influence over how we respond to them when they come up.
The metaphor has proven quite helpful to my self-management over the years. While I can certainly pretend it’s not raining, I know full well that if I go out without a coat on, I will get wet. If it’s raining hard, the rest of my day at work will likely be uncomfortable at best. The odds of getting sick go up, the rest of my mental state goes down. By contrast, if I don some raingear, walking to the car will be at worst a slight bit of unpleasantness that will quickly pass, leaving me in good shape to get on with the day in pretty fine form.
Unfortunately, in most organizations, there is little cultural understanding of emotions, and the ability to talk about them meaningfully is minimal. It’s not that hard to understand why. While we all have them, few of us have thorough training in, or deep intellectual understanding of, the subject. And even if we do, the reality is that it’s not an easy subject to master even in the best of times. If you’re confused by emotion, you’re certainly not alone. In 2001 Robert Plutchik wrote, “Almost everyone agrees that the study of emotion is one of the most confused (and still open) chapters in the history of psychology. By one estimate, more than 90 definitions of ‘emotion’ were proposed over the course of the 20th century … it is no wonder there is much disagreement among contemporary theoreticians concerning the best way to conceptualize emotion and interpret its role in life.”
It’s not like the average workplace is working wonders to improve this situation. Hardly anyone starts a business because they’re eager to engage in thoughtful emotional discourse. As Gary Hamel states clearly, most organizational cultures are, at their core, dehumanizing. “That’s hardly surprising,” Hamel says, “Bureaucracies are emotional dead zones.” When we don’t let people bring themselves wholly to work in these sorts of settings, if we don’t teach the tools and give them the space to do that in productive, caring, and effective ways, we reduce their engagement, we lose their spirit, we stop helping them to get to greatness.
While it would be easy to blame business, relatively few of us enter into it knowing much about emotion either. Speaking personally, although I grew up in a nice middle-class, well-educated, Midwestern family, I was anything but “fluent” in the language of feelings. While I obviously had, and still have, a full range of emotions at hand, my ability to manage them back then was fairly poor. On the surface, I was a fully functioning adult working creatively and effectively in the food business, but it wasn’t until probably five or six years after we opened that I began to be able to have meaningful conversations about the subject. I’ve come to realize over the years that we have a chance to reverse all of that, building healthier businesses and helping the people in them in the process. When we create organizations in which mental health challenges and the daily ups and downs of emotion become something we can relatively quickly respond to as we would shifts in the weather, our work will almost certainly go better, and we will improve many lives in the process.
Karla McLaren is one of the top writers in the field to address emotions in layperson’s (like mine) terms! Her latest publication, The Power of Emotions at Work, shows just how much healthy engagement with emotion can help our organizational cultures. “Your emotions,” she writes, “bring you the gifts and skills you need to deal with trouble.” These are two areas of importance McLaren encourages us to focus on:
- – Emotional awareness – knowing how you’re feeling and being able to understand what others are saying when they talk about theirs
- – Emotional skills – being able to manage your own emotions and manage effectively with the emotions of others in mind.
McLaren shares nine signs that things are going well in an emotionally healthy workplace. First on her list: “Emotions are spoken of openly and people have workable emotional vocabularies.” I wholeheartedly support this. At the same time, I know enough to know that learning to talk of, and effectively about, emotions is not an overnight activity. Few of us will have received either the training or the tools to do good work in this field. Given that I grew up with a whole array of socio-economic advantages, in a family that read regularly, the fact that my emotional “fluency” was so low, makes it easy to understand just how few folks we hire are going to know how to have the kind of conversations that Karla McLaren is writing about (at least in any field of work other than one that hires folks who are trained in the management of mental health).
This discussion of language is leading me back to the wonderful work of Manchán Magan, and his beautiful book, Thirty-Two Words for Field. In the first chapter, Manchán shares the story of when he was a small boy out in the west of Ireland with his grandmother. Although he grew up in the city learning English, his family roots were out west in a Gaeltacht, one of the Irish-speaking parts of the country. Trying to learn more of his native language, one morning Manchán asked his grandmother what the Irish word for “hole” would be. She quickly gave him four completely different options. In English, we have a single word, but in Irish, he learned, there was a whole series, each dependent on how the hole had been created. “That was the moment,” Manchán writes, “I realised that the two languages I spoke, Irish and English, required not just different forms of grammar and syntax but different ways of seeing the world.” It’s much the same with our feelings; as we learn the language of emotion, at least in my experience, we will begin to better see the complexity and beauty of the world around us.
Learning other languages, I believe, helps us think more effectively and embrace the natural diversity of the world. I grew up with English and a good bit of Hebrew. Later I took five years of Russian, but the “second language” I wish I’d learned was the language of emotion. The first time I went to therapy and the therapist asked how I felt, I was unable to respond in any kind of meaningful way. The only options I could come up with were “worried,” “fine,” and “good.” It was very much like arriving in another country and knowing enough words to be superficially friendly, but then when the conversation gets serious, being completely stuck. Without the language, we can barely converse, and we certainly lose “the subtlety and nuance” that Manchán writes about. Our collective failure to teach this kind of emotional fluency in our organizations can, I’ve come to believe, cause some very big problems, issues that will eventually be reflected in everything from staff surveys to financial statements.
The good news is that there are thousands of great resources out there to help. My own learning, as I alluded to, began when I started going to therapy thirty years or so ago. I quickly realized how little I knew. Yes, I was “successful” in business, yes, I had a degree from a well-respected university, but the truth is I could barely put together two sentences that effectively and intentionally conveyed meaningful emotion in a meeting. Back in 1980, while I was working my way into line cooking, Sam Keen published a book called Inward Bound, a play on words on the Outward Bound program that still takes young people out into the wilderness. Sam’s book sends us on a deep dive into our emotional existences. In 1995 Daniel Goleman published the now-classic Emotional Intelligence. I’ve read it two or three times since and found it hugely helpful. As Goleman very succinctly states, “A view of human nature that ignores the power of emotions is shortsighted.”
The ecosystem metaphor I’ve been working with helps bring together the many factors that contribute to organizational health. The quality of our culture (soil), beliefs (roots), hope (sun), spirit of generosity (water), purpose (air), etc. all play a part in what we do and how we do it. It’s clear, too, that in any ecosystem, the quality of the crops we grow will also be impacted by the weather. A good farmer learns to work through all of them. While certainly there can be catastrophic weather situations that destroy crops, and every farmer dreams daily of the perfect weather season, the reality is mostly in between. Yes, we can complain about the weather, but to move forward we need to figure out the best response. Similarly, we can be frustrated with how we feel, or more likely lament what we believe has caused us to feel that way, but as the African American proverb reminds us, “Cussing the weather is mighty poor farming.” What we can do is learn, as any good farmer does, to know what weather is coming; to smell rain, to feel the storm brewing over the horizon, to quickly adapt no matter what happens. When we practice this all well, we can learn to work in pretty much any “weather pattern.” As 18th-century writer John Ruskin said, “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
The weather metaphor has helped me get my mind around emotions at work for a whole host of reasons:
- If emotions are the weather, clearly, no human has “control.”
- When we know what weather is forecasted, we can be better prepared.
- We learn that we can allow the weather to ruin our day, or we can adapt appropriately.
- We start to understand that some of us are going through the equivalent of tropical storms or tornadoes—deaths, divorce, grave danger, or any number of other things can be deeply debilitating. (As we would in the aftermath of a hurricane, we need to help those who’ve suffered get back to being able to function effectively.)
- We start to see that we all react differently to different sorts of weather. (I always feel better when the sun is out, while others seek out the shade. I feel down on drizzly days, others are comforted. Storms scare me, others are fascinated by them. The same is true for emotions; how we feel about each feeling we experience is always a personal, and often illogical, thing.)
- When we embrace emotions as the weather, we can let go of trying to argue ourselves or others out of how we feel. (I don’t like snow at all, but listing reasons why it sucks doesn’t do anything to change the reality when I go outside.)
- Seeing the swings in emotional states as if they are “weather fronts” moving through, helps me accept that emotions will always come and go; in the long run, I’ve learned that they are helpful signals that may well call for action. At other times, I’ve come to understand that my best strategy is simply to let them blow past. (You might know the saying, “If you don’t like weather, wait five minutes!” While 21st century thermostats now often have settings that you can set to “hold” a temperature for a set period of time, our emotions simply don’t work that way. We can go from joyful and elated, to angry, to depressed and back to joyful in about fifteen minutes.)
- If emotions are the weather, then we can start to embrace the reality that when we come to a meeting, we are all bringing our own “weather” with us. (If there are eight of us in the meeting, then it’s likely we’re reacting to eight completely different bits of emotional contexts. For one of us the sun is shining and we’re highly hopeful; for another it’s a dark, gloomy, cloudy day; and for another still, storms are on the horizon. None of these emotional states is “wrong.” It’s just that if we don’t understand, even embrace, that this is going on, you can only imagine the sorts of arguments and eye rolls that are likely to ensue! My wise and insightful friend, Yodit Mesfin-Johnson, who’s the President and CEO at NEW Nonprofit Enterprise at Work shared that she often uses this icebreaker at meetings: “What’s your weather forecast?”)
- When we know what weather is forecasted, we can be better prepared.
The metaphor also helped me to see how much our emotions are, often unconsciously, altering the course of organizational history. Just as there’s no way to have a day without weather, it’s physiologically impossible to work without emotion. And as the Farmer’s Almanac says,
Did you know many important historical events were influenced, if not incited, by the weather? Sudden freezes, hurricanes, high winds, snowstorms, and more are inadvertently responsible for resurfacing roads (which led to a seemingly unattainable victory), redefining attitudes, reforming sinners, and redirecting military maneuvers. In short, it may be said that weather has rearranged history.
How can we get better at handling all this? Like most everything else, mindful practice helps. It won’t make perfect, but it will make a difference! Try Julia Cameron’s suggestion: “Several times a day, just take a beat, and ask yourself how you are feeling. Listen to your answer. Respond kindly.” If you keep a log of what you notice over a period of time, it will be telling.
Having spent a good bit of time of late reflecting on all this, I’ve realized that we already have a fair few tools here at Zingerman’s that help to improve the emotional fluency in the organization. I’ll share more on this next week. One thing we aren’t doing yet, which I believe would help a lot, is to come to agreement on a lexicon and language of emotion that we will use in our organization. There are dozens of models you—and we—can choose from. Positive psychologist Edith Eva Eger says, “Although it feels like the palette of human feelings is limitless, in fact every emotional shade, like every color, is derived from just a few primary emotions: sad, mad, glad, scared.” Given how little most of us know, I like the simplicity and down to earth way Dr. Eger presents it. Karla McLaren has a longer list of 18 emotions, each with subcategories! If you want a visual model, Robert Plutchik rolled out a color wheel of emotion in 1980.
Like so much of what we teach here in the ZCoB, this work about emotion won’t only enhance our effectiveness as leaders, it’s also a life skill. The more fluently we can speak the language of emotion, the more open and effective we can get at using it in everyday conversations at work. The better we can read the weather patterns and respond quickly when it’s clear that “fronts” are going to collide, the calmer, more effective and more rewarding all our lives are going to be. Grief, pain, fear, anger, and embarrassment will always be at hand, but when we can slowly but surely learn to adapt quickly, effectively, and collaboratively, we all come out ahead. Instead of meeting emotion with anxiety, maybe we can learn to make a daily activity of the title of that wonderful old John Martyn song, “Bless the Weather.”
For more on what I’ve written on managing ourselves, including emotion, see Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves.
*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!