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Being positive all the time is impossible and toxic—here’s how to deal with difficult emotions at work
Being forced to suppress negative emotions in the workplace doesn’t make them go away.
Many organizations now understand the importance of developing a healthy workplace culture and have spent a great deal of time, finances, and effort to create one. The vision of a workplace where everyone is happy, cheerful, and positive at all times can be very tempting and organizations can succumb to these temptations. However, not only is this vision unrealistic—it’s also toxic.
In my book The Other Kind of Smart, I talk about how our emotions are neutral, neither good nor bad. It’s what we do with our emotions that matters. Being forced to suppress negative emotions in the workplace doesn’t make them go away. Rather, it drives them underground, where they fester, grow, and become stronger.
Organizations that set the expectation that negative emotions are wrong and do not belong at work ultimately set themselves up for volatile toxic cultures. While it’s no easy task to deal with difficult emotions, organizations must not ignore them or shrink from facing them.
Rather than suppress negative emotions, there are ways that organizations can work toward giving everyone the freedom to express themselves in a way that improves a given situation rather than making it worse.
Instead of seeing negative emotions as a threat, organizations should look to all emotions expressed by their people as information on issues that need to be addressed for the health of the team. By bringing the emotions out into the open, there is an opportunity to work through them; driving them underground allows them to do more damage to a group’s morale and productivity.
One approach is for organizations to encourage active listening, which means listening to someone, even someone with strong feelings, with the primary goal of mutual understanding. Most of the time when someone is speaking we are busy thinking of a response instead of paying attention to what the other person is saying. Simply being heard can go a long way toward helping the person expressing strong emotions release some of the energy that those emotions carry. Not being heard, or being judged for having that emotion, will have the opposite effect and grow that energy.
“Adding listening to the workplace may seem simple, but like any new skill, it requires practice. Leaders must strengthen their listening muscles, just as they would go to the gym,” says Adi Y. Segal, CEO of Hapi, a digital platform that provides listening certification. “It’s both an art and a science, so teams must intentionally build in the time and space to listen deeply to one another. Ultimately, this will strengthen the company culture and help drive the bottom line.”
When people understand that negative emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness can be openly acknowledged, they develop a sense of psychological safety. When acknowledging someone’s tough emotions, it’s important not to get defensive or hide behind emails or other technology. Often the best way to deal with difficult emotions is in person.
“Though human-to-human communication is the only way to resolve conflict, often people hide behind fake positive communication. The pressure to maintain a positive attitude can also lead to a lack of authenticity in the workplace, as employees may feel like they have to put on a facade rather than being their true selves,” Segal says. “Ultimately, toxic positivity can create a toxic work environment that can negatively impact an employee’s mental health and work performance. In essence, toxic positivity is the opposite of creating an open listening environment at work.”
Of course, if a situation is too volatile and uncomfortable, it’s better to take time away and allow people to cool off. A period of separation that allows emotions to calm down will lead to a greater chance of a conversation being a productive learning opportunity.
For leaders, dealing with someone’s tough emotions can be one of the most difficult parts of the job. However, if handled well, the person who expressed these emotions could learn valuable information about themselves and appreciate that someone was there for them to listen and offer support.
Someone with difficult emotions may be an employee who cares deeply and wants to give their best to an organization. If they feel supported and listened to, they may develop a healthy respect for the leader who had the courage to not ignore or deny their emotions. In this way, embracing difficult emotions can help build loyal and productive teams.