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Emotions at Work

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True employee engagement requires a conversation about emotions at work. Should you draw a clear separation between the office and your personal life, or should you be a “whole person” and involved in the life of your coworkers?

Employee Engagement: Sad at Work

© Flickr user Octopus Hat

Let’s start with one extreme, which comes from professional speaker Glenn Shepard. His famous “rules of work” include the following items:

3. Leave your home life at home.
10. Be low maintenance.

Those are some pretty strict edicts. But compare them with the complete opposite direction with regard to employee engagement. An article from the Child Care Information Exchange by Pauline Dave Zeece titles “Way Beyond Chicken Soup: Caring for and about Ill Employees” includes this passage:

Thus, the serious or terminal illness of a staff member presents a wealth of challenges and opportunities for an administrator. To deal effectively with employee illness, a director must ideally be both compassionate and pragmatic.

Caring administrators watch for cues from employees about how and when they can make a difference. The workplace atmosphere is
supportive of staff in good health and illness. They are realistic about what they can and cannot do in the context of their administrative role. They are willing to give of themselves without compromising their programs.

So which one is the right kind of employee engagement? Should people leave their home life at home, or should bosses bring chicken soup to people when they are sick?

The reality is much more complicated than fully engaging (or fully denying) the role of emotions at work. We don’t want to encourage people to bring their baggage from home into the office—or vice versa. But of course we are all human and it’s not possible to fully compartmentalize our lives.

Therefore, what we really want is for people to take personal responsibility for managing their emotional state. If you’re too upset to be productive at work, you should probably not try to work that day. If you want to celebrate happiness in your own life with your colleagues, you should feel free to do so in a way that does not significantly impact their ability to be productive either.

Likewise, we don’t want managers to become unduly burdened by the personal nature of relationships. You’re going to get to know your colleagues as people, and when they have emotional challenges you’re certainly going to be aware that they are happening. But as an employer or a fellow staff member, you should not be in the best position to help them. In fact, your loyalties are mixed, because you need the work to get done.

Too many people want to be completely black and white about emotions at the workplace. Happy employees are ones that can express themselves, but also those that recognize how their ability to focus on work and get things done contributes to the company and to their personal sense of accomplishment. Genuine employee engagement means that we treat people as human, but honor the system of the organization.

What’s your take on emotions at work?

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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  • Tristan Schmid

    It’s all about balance. More workplaces are moving toward a work/life blend (flextime, remote working arrangements, etc.) as opposed to a strict work/life separation, so a binary emotional/emotionless division just doesn’t make sense.

  • rslaughter

    Great thoughts, Tristan!

    But I have to ask—did it EVER make sense to have a binary division of emotions? I just think that modern work environments make this more obvious than ever before.

  • Sharon Boller

    This is a tough, tough topic. As a business owner, I can tell you that we definitely recognize that people don’t turn emotions on/off like a faucet. Life constantly throws tough challenges at all of us – every single employee in our company is dealing with SOMETHING all the time: illness somewhere in the family, a friend who is going through a tough time, a divorce, a miscarriage, a death, depression….There will always be challenges in every person’s life. On occasion, the challenges become so huge that the employee cannot function effectively at work.

    What to do? The work has to get done – it doesn’t stop for these life challenges. My focus is trying to create is a caring environment where strong teams and teamwork allows people to be human. When one team member is struggling, the other team members can fill in the gaps. For this approach and philosophy to work, all team members have to buy into it. Individuals have to respect the team and not take advantage of it.

    A compassionate workplace recognizes people’s emotions and challenges – but doesn’t constantly adjust to accommodate these challenges since the workplace would find itself in a constant state of accommodation. Instead – we want collaboration (e.g. the teamwork referenced above) The team stays strong and productive, allows its team members to experience down moments, and encourages them to return to productive status as quickly as they can by giving them space when they need it.

  • rslaughter

    Thanks for the comments, Sharon! You’re absolutely right and there are no easy answers. But you’re thinking hard about the issues and engaging your team—so you’re headed in the right direction!

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