Fear of Feelings

By Cindy Vallance

When was the last time you or someone else referenced FEELINGS (principle 6 to develop a thinking environment) within a work context? When someone is upset, for instance, or angry, we will likely be most comfortable if we can make this demonstration of feelings stop – and the quicker the better. Maybe we think it will take too much time or that we have lost control if our feelings show. That is certainly what society seems to tell us. Just pull yourself together we think. But as much as we may wish we could because of this sense that feelings at work aren’t appropriate, none of us can leave our feelings behind when we walk through that door.

For instance, we can’t think well if we are upset. But if we repress the outward demonstration of our feelings too quickly, that doesn’t mean we have stopped having them. We have just pushed them inward – and we still won’t be able to think well.

Perhaps we should be a little less afraid of feelings – for ourselves and for others.

Try this when someone next shows their feelings – especially if they are the ones that make us most uncomfortable – anger, grief, despair, sadness. Sit with them, don’t panic, pay attention without smothering them with our concern, and let them find their way back. They will then think more clearly.

4 thoughts on “Fear of Feelings”

  1. You raise a really interesting issue here. The importance of feelings is often completely under-represented in organisational literature, other than discussions of ‘discomfort’ with change, perhaps. However as you suggest, if we see colleagues expressing negative emotions, we need to be prepared to come alongside and, if possible, to understand better.

    I was reading last night about issues of emotion at work. One of the most controversial aspects of W. Edwards Deming’s leadership philosophy is to ‘drive out fear’. Conventional wisdom often appears to suggest that fear (a complex emotion) is a good motivator, so unsurprisingly many people find Deming’s ideas about this somewhat confusing. What is Deming’s point and why does he want to ‘dirve out fear’? Rafael Aguayo neatly defines the issues – fear causes either a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ reaction; both reactions are represented in emotions and behaviours that PREVENT effective work, just as you have mentioned. So why do some managers still assume that they can ‘motivate’ people by generating fear which has a negative impact on work…?

  2. Why indeed? There’s interesting work being done in Neuroscience about just this topic of the brain and emotions impact on effectiveness.

    Check out: Neuroscience – New Science for New Leadership By Paul Brown and Brenda Hales in Executive Education in Practice Issue 5 2011. Here’s how it starts…

    “Research on the neurochemistry of pre-adolescent girls on the
    telephone might not, at first thought, be the most likely introduction
    to re-thinking leadership. But what if it gave some insights into
    how humans support themselves through stressful events and,
    significantly increase their performance? What if knowing about this and otheraspects of the science of how the brain works enabled leaders to maximise their own and others effectiveness?”

  3. Neuroscience has contributed to our understanding of human behaviour at work and it may be worth reminding managers of how much can be learned by applying some sensible practices based on this knowledge. However it can throw up some tricky or at least unexpected issues. However I think well-informed understanding of these unexpected aspects can be of real help and can change our approaches to work.

    For example ‘cognitive dissonance’, when one’s own beliefs (based on and match with our individual self-perception) don’t match with external inputs, means that giving and recieving feedback is a difficult process. People recieving challenging feedback will tend to use ignore or rationalise away the issues (in their own minds if not outwardly), rather than accepting feedback which would require them to redefine their self-perception. It is usually only major challenges that truly stop us in our tracks and ‘change our minds’.This means that people probably need either to be trained in giving AND recieving feedback (since perhaps it is not a ‘natural’ process) or we need to somehow give feedback responsibility to the person themselves!

    Of course the other factor in play is human emotion, which has significant impact on responses and behaviour at work – as you have mentioned in your blog.

    Charles Jacobs, (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons From the Latest Brain Science

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