Workplace Wisdom

How to Help Colleagues Regulate Out-of-Control Emotions

No matter how important it is to take everyone’s feelings into account, it’s still not reasonable to expect tears, shouts, or clenched jaws in the workplace every day. Excessive or poorly directed emotions get in the way of the work.

So now that you’ve had some more practice coping with your own emotions, you can take another look at the emotions of the people around you, think about ways to recognize their feelings, and work with that information as well.

When you notice emotional reactions in your managers or colleagues — or even in your customers — it makes sense to get curious: Why might co-workers feel the way they do? What’s going on with them?

Empathetic Analytics

Managers may be particularly unskilled at dealing with employees’ emotions if they haven’t gotten a grip on their own yet. And by “grip,” I don’t mean a clamped-down vise — it’s not about suppression, keeping a stiff upper lip, or manning up. By stiffening yourself against other people’s emotional impact and trying not to feel, you can lose your ability to take in data accurately or think clearly. What I mean is being able to observe your own feelings and keep them enough in check so that you can recognize the emotions of those around you and help them manage their own reactions.

It’s only practical to understand others’ emotions before you decide whether you want to take any action. It helps to use several different types of observation: Look and listen to see how others are reacting. Let yourself feel — as yourself, and also in response to the others — and check your own bodily responses to help you sense how others are feeling. Your brain will register others’ facial expressions, body language, and gestures even before you’re consciously aware of them, and your own emotional pathways will be triggered.

If You See Something, Say Something

When you’re noticing someone’s negative emotional state, search for the underlying workplace structures or rules that created the conditions that triggered those feelings. Conversely, when you notice a positive emotional state, which is unfortunately usually less common at work, think about how to replicate the conditions that will help give colleagues more of THAT.

It’s a wonderful thing if you can help people feel better just by paying attention to them. And it’s a useful thing if you can get to the underlying triggers that caused the problem.

Here are two extremely different examples of how recognizing emotions in the workplace turned out:

  • During a meeting of senior execs, one was pointedly harsh and dismissive when discussing a subordinate’s performance. Even colleagues who were familiar with the situation were taken aback by the intensity of his comments. After discussion, the exec admitted that he was aware of his own deep sense of frustration — as well as a sense of hopelessness that circumstances could not change quickly enough — but that he had not anticipated how angry he would sound or how strongly his display of negative emotion would affect his colleagues. He agreed that it would have been more productive to describe his frustration and the impact the situation was having on him instead of letting it overflow into anger on related subjects.
  • A previously effective manager suddenly began having emotional outbursts, often including tears and disproportionate complaints, with colleagues, subordinates, and senior managers — and even with customers. After multiple discussions, her management encouraged her to take some time off. Subsequent self-examination and medical examination identified a medical problem that, after treatment, eliminated the outbursts and permitted her to return to her role. If the executives had not been blunt about the impact of her emotionalism on her performance, the underlying medical issue might not have been identified.

You’ll never alleviate all negative emotions — not your own and certainly not other people’s — but you can learn and teach the coping skills of self-awareness and self-management and use your curiosity to see what might work better.

Onward and upward,

LK

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