Check your feelings at the door!

If you're anything like me, you were taught to check your feelings at the workplace door. How is that working for you?

I know it worked well for me. Until it didn’t.

I remember lots of emotions coming into my workplace. I’ve been on the receiving end of them and have been the deliverer of them. So, why do we say it - check your feelings at the door??

What’s important to note as we explore this conversation is that workplace culture and leadership in itself is a beast.

There’s no silver bullet, no magic pill; showing up and leading is a vulnerable process that requires us to care about people and develop some level of self-awareness that keeps our behaviors in check and integrity intact.

I don’t have all of the answers, only a handful of experiences (and probably way more questions), some level of applied knowledge that has demonstrated I can learn from mistakes and an ability to hold the tension of uncertainty in the midst of the job we call “leadership.”

So, let’s explore this idea of what it means when we say check your feelings at the door. First, let’s think about some of the possible reasons why we say this.

· Dealing with and managing emotions in other people is uncomfortable.

· Dealing with and managing emotions within ourselves is uncomfortable.

· Lacking emotional literacy - no real understanding of emotions or what they mean or what triggered them.

· No real skill for how to process emotions.

I’m sure this list is not inclusive but from a leadership perspective, this is what I have experienced.

So, let’s first acknowledge the first two because I feel they are related. Here is my perspective and it’s simple.

How can we effectively lead or support others if we don’t know what that looks like for our own selves?

I’ve seen many leaders attempt to lead others where they have not gone. The result of that is usually a fun time, setback, failure or giant shit show.

Example: As a continuous improvement practitioner, it’s never been in anyone’s best interest for me to execute any type of change without some level of experience around me. It’s one thing to try executing a SMED for the first time. Totally another to shut the line down because we had not fully prepared. I’ve seen this happen often.

Essentially, we can’t effectively lead others where we haven’t gone. If you are unaware of how you behave when you feel vulnerable, how do you plan to navigate that with your team when they face it?

If your own emotions make you uncomfortable, then it makes a lot of sense to avoid not only your emotions but also the emotions of others. “Check your feelings at the door” is a gracious attempt at avoiding the discomfort and controlling the outcome of our work experiences. All while negatively impacting psychological safety too, by the way.

So, let’s explore what happens when we say “check your feelings at the door.” My brief 5-minute video creatively explores this a bit more with some behavioral examples so please check it out: LINK

So, when I hear - check your emotions at the door, I am hearing that emotional stoicism is rewarded here. Lock that girly crap down and man up.

I am also deciding these things below AND feeling these things as a result. Watch my cognitive and emotional process unfold…

1. Don’t show emotions here, check that drama at the door.

2. Ok, got it, don’t show anything. Keep a straight face. Oh, maybe smile because that’s safe for everyone – even when you disagree.

3. Wait, I feel frustrated about this and I am not feeling heard.

4. I can’t be honest that I feel frustrated because - step 1.

5. Lock it down, Sabrina. Feel nothing.

6. Ok, I’m feeling afraid now, if I say how I feel, what will they think of me? Will I get fired? Will I be criticized and ridiculed?

7. Lock it down, your job is on the line.

8. You know what? This is BS. Now I am full of resentment. I have every right to feel frustrated, why can’t I say that and feel that?

9. Oh that’s right, cause there is something wrong with me for feeling this.

10. Commence shame.

Now the behaviors that show up as a result of these emotions I am definitely NOW feeling (fear, resentment, shame) are beyond the frustration I was originally wishing I could just say I was feeling. And let me say, the cost of this behavior in the context of our workplaces is even more staggering. Just ask me about “the pizza story” sometime.

So, before you jump right in and just decide to feel comfortable with everyone’s emotions, cause let’s be real here (who truly can?), let’s just start with our own. Here are some questions that I feel are a reasonable first step that will help you get curious.

· What happens when someone lets you down and shares that the work they promised would be done, wasn’t?

· What do you feel and where do you feel it in your body?

· Is it anger, rage, disappointment, frustration, irritation, overwhelmed, betrayed, something else?

· What behavior could we all observe as a result of what you were feeling?

Here’s why this matters.

Each emotion we experience invites certain behaviors. We may not all behave the same when we feel frustrated. While there are patterned ways that we tend to behave with certain emotions, there is no one way to know for sure. It’s up to us to learn that about ourselves also called self-awareness. According to Tasha Eurich, almost all of us believe we are self-aware but it turns out only 10-15% are.

If we are the kind of leader who pounds their fist on the table when they feel frustration, we need to become aware of that and consider what it might invite our team to feel or decide. I know from experiences that engaging in that type of behavior, including the throwing of clipboards, definitely gets results from the people I was leading. (Not a proud moment.)

I literally saw fear in their eyes and the “oh shit, Sabrina is pissed, let’s move!” kind of response but I also learned a painful lesson as a result of this. It earned me a reputation as a bully; which is not leadership. A leader who could only get results because of fear and intimidation not because of my training, leadership and decision-making skills.

Don’t be like me.

Next, lacking emotional literacy simply means we could probably only name a couple of emotions, or the triad as Dr. Brené Brown calls them – happy, sad, mad. She says the average amount of emotions most of us can name are those three because we just didn’t learn about the range of emotions growing up nor did we have access to emotional language.

One place to start here is an emotion wheel. It’s no different than a glossary. We just need a starting place to learn about the range of emotions we can experience so that we can start acknowledging them within ourselves.

For example, if we learn that reluctance is an emotion and begin to get curious about it along with how we behave when we feel it, imagine what we can do when we start to tackle some of the harder more primitive emotions like fear, shame, inadequacy, rage and more?

Last but not least, dealing with and feeling our emotions can be an overwhelming experience in itself. Most of us have strategies that we think are effective for dealing with our stuff. Many of these strategies are not strategic at all actually. In fact, they stifle us.

If I said, that the way to process emotions is to feel them, acknowledge them and then release them – would you buy what I’m selling?

One thing that has become clearer to me over the years is this. Developing workplace culture requires a level of curiosity and willingness to let go of control on occasion. If someone says to me, “this place is toxic,” I don’t need empirical data to back that up. I believe them.

I’ve worked for some incredible and innovative organizations and leaders; I’ve also worked for some of the worst. I’ve been one of them too so I know without a doubt that “toxic” is a feeling tied to the culture.

Think about it. It’s really hard to collect data on toxic - but we sure feel it, don’t we? Emotional stoicism prevents connection, empathy and trust. Letting go of control and being willing to connect requires vulnerability. Nothing toxic about that but it sure is hard, scary and uncertain.

But hey, check those emotions at the door – nobody has time for feelings here but we can sure spend a lot of time, resources and money dealing with really unhelpful, dysfunctional and ineffective behaviors instead.

My invitation to us all is to acknowledge that we can show up differently, become aware of when we are working out or stuff on other people and begin to embrace the suck of emotions in our workplace including holding space for others’ emotions.

They are there, whether we like it or not because as long as humans are there; so are our feelings. It’s a part of our human experience.

All of it belongs. Let’s lead differently, shall we? No more clipboard throwing.

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