The Fear of Feelings at Work

The psychologist Susan David argues that the idea that employees should only display positive emotions at work often results in organizational failures.

It’s clear which emotions are acceptable at work: Happiness and enthusiasm are welcomed, but sadness and fear are usually awkward and taboo. That’s likely why workers tend to cry in the bathroom but smile at their desks.

While emotions such as fear or sadness are perceived negatively by companies, they can actually be helpful for work, according to Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. As part of her work, she consults with companies on how to best motivate their employees and create a culture that makes it easier for all parties to reach their goals. It sounds simple enough, but it’s pretty difficult in practice.

I recently spoke with David about her research and her book, Emotional Agility, which looks at how companies and employees can acknowledge uncomfortable experiences and react appropriately. David argues that the suppression of negative emotions and thoughts at work can lead to harmful results, so much so that some business school professors have taken to recommending that companies perform “pre mortems” before starting big projects to identify reservations that team members are too reluctant to speak up about. Often, a can-do attitude can mask existing problems. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: What’s missing in the way companies treat people?

Susan David: Organizations still have this view that’s a throwback to the industrial age. It sees people as machines. The reason that I say that it’s like the industrial age is there’s this idea that if you put information into people, that you’ll get behaviors out of the other end. We’re dealing with humans here. The way organizations are structured is from a machine-age mentality.

Lam: Many companies are now deeply concerned about how engaged their employees are. How does that interplay with the old mandate that people should be happy at work as part of their jobs?

David: What’s clear in the research is that a workplace that helps people work with their experiences is going to be more effective.

Working individuals going through a difficult experience will say, “I should just be happy, at least I have a job.” They try to rationalize their way out of emotions. A core part of emotional agility is the idea that our emotions are critical; they help us and our organizations. For example, if a person is upset that their idea was stolen at work, that’s a sign that they value fairness. Instead of being good or bad emotions, we should see emotions as containing useful data.

Positive emotions, like being happy, can help with particular kinds of thinking and particular kinds of work. But negative emotions can help us in the workplace to be more effective thinkers, to dig into the facts of what may go wrong. To mandate that we should just be positive at work takes away from the idea that emotions have evolved to help us adapt.

Susan Cain, who wrote the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, talks about how there’s been a whole exclusion of introverts in the workplace, and a mandating of extroversion. In the same way, I think there’s an overvaluing of positivity in a way that undervalues the full range of emotional experience.

Bourree Lam: How do you do help organizations, and the people inside them, with emotions and motivation?

Susan David: I’ll often be called into organizations after they’ve had a crisis, similar to the United crisis for example. Something has gone awry, and how people have responded, reacted, or behaved is not effective. What happened to enable this ineffectiveness?

Even though all organizations will say we need people who are adaptable, able to be inclusive, thinking through outcomes effectively, when there’s a lot of change and stress, people start to engage in black-and-white thinking. They start to become inflexible and unable to adapt to the situation at hand. I try to understand where the organization is at, and what are the enablers and disablers of what they’re trying to achieve.

Lam: Is that stress part of what you call emotional labor?

David: Stress is a particular kind of emotional labor. Generally, emotional labor is an idea that every single person, when they go to work, does the physical or intellectual part of their work, and they also do emotional labor. For example, going to a meeting and being polite or trying to stay focused while a lot of change is going on.

Ironically, the conflict of emotional labor was first widely studied when it came to airline attendants. They called it the PanAM smile: flight attendants trying to do their jobs when there was a lot of stress. A lot of workplaces were saying [to their workers] that they have to be positive and happy.

Lam: Do you think this problem is distinctly American? Or do you see this everywhere?

David: It tends to be a little more Western, but there are subtle differences from country to country. Organizations will often have display rules, which emotions are okay to demonstrate at work. From Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety, we know that teams that feel safe enough to articulate discontent or talk about frustration are the most high-functioning teams. When we only allow some emotions, we create a huge amount of emotional labor. We also create a situation for individuals that is psychologically unhealthy and undermines the organization’s ability to learn and function more effectively.