Managing Emotions in the Workplace

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 25th January 2016

More and more leaders are starting to acknowledge emotions in the workplace, rather than attempting to suppress or ignore them. For those who are ready to confront emotion in a professional context, let’s explore how to manage it effectively.

Destigmatising emotion

The word ‘emotion’ often gets treated as a pejorative term in a professional context, as if it were something that doesn’t belong at work or is somehow a ‘bad thing’ in and of itself. I often see or hear the term used almost as an accusation, occasionally by male managers using it to describe (and often demean) female colleagues.

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But while belittling emotion might seem an easy way of avoiding uncomfortable conversations or appearing more macho, it is a classic piece of misogyny that has no place in the thinking of a contemporary leader.

Human beings are emotional creatures, regardless of gender. It’s a key part of what makes us human, and central to the amazing progress we have made as a species. We would not have been able to make the journey from cave inhabitation to space exploration without emotion, and seeking to remove it from the workplace is a pointless exercise that reduces engagement and works counter to the creation of strong, productive relationships.

The importance of emotional intelligence

There is so much evidence now, that the contemporary leader cannot sensibly deny the existence or significance of emotional intelligence (EQ). It’s important for leaders to understand that emotion is a source of power. It has the ability to engage and connect people to each other, and to shared goals. It enables passion and can be the spark that drives a team or an individual to do exceptional things.

As a leader, it is your job to build relationships and facilitate high-performance. To do this, you need people who are caring, engaged and passionate, and this is inevitably going to create some conflict and emotionally-charged situations. This is necessary to high performance, and not something to be denied, suppressed or ignored. Research has even shown that happiness is a significant contributing factor to high performance.

Maintaining a balance

Emotion is about feelings. We all feel, whether we like it or not; we may, at any given point, feel happy, sad, irritated, angry, or any of hundreds of other emotions. It’s just a fact of life, and science teaches us that attempts to suppress these feelings can have negative consequences.

Of course, reacting to any situation on a purely emotional level, without the balance of rational thought or a sense of proportion, is often unhelpful. The answer, however, is not to deny emotion and seek to be purely rational, for that is to deny a large part of the caring and passion necessary to achieving great performance. As always in contemporary leadership, the challenge is to achieve a helpful balance that maintains cohesion within the team.

Putting emotion into context

A key consideration when it comes to emotion is intent. In any emotional situation such as conflict, is the person or group seeking to disrupt for good reasons or bad reasons? The issue is not the conflict itself, for some of that is inevitable, but what lies behind it. People may disagree, even quite violently, about a point of principle or a course of action, but if that is simply because they both care passionately about achieving a particular outcome, then the purpose is positive and supportive to the aims of the team.

On the other hand, if emotions are the result of unreasonable behavior or attitudes, such as an attempt to give one person or group unfair advantage over another, and are therefore not in the interests of the greater good, then that is quite another thing. Here are some tips for dealing with difficult employees.

Always consider the motivation behind a behavior or situation. Your job as leader is to manage situations for the greater good of the team, the individuals, the organisation and its stakeholders.

Responding to emotional situations

In any emotionally charged situation, understanding and managing your own emotional response is the first thing you must do. As a leader, you cannot allow your own emotions, attitudes or beliefs to unreasonably influence the way you handle situations.

Getting annoyed or being dismissive are responses that are neither fair nor helpful. Your intent must be to seek a sensible way forward that acknowledges the feelings of the individuals, but ensures that there is no significant damage to long-term relationships or the team’s capability.

Where emotion is caused by conflict, each party needs to come to accept the right of the other party to feel the way they do. They may not agree, but they must accept that it is ok to disagree. The often quoted saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is relevant here.

As a leader you need to accept, in the same vein, that it is ok for people to have an emotional reaction to a situation. Your job is to understand the triggers and, where conflict is involved, to help people accept their differences in order to find the best way forward for the greater good.

The secret, I have found, is to simply keep asking why. Why do they feel the way they do? Why now? Why has this become sufficiently significant to require your involvement? Why can’t this be a good thing for the team or organisation?

Of course, emotion in the workplace is not always to do with work itself. But even where personal matters cause emotional responses, the way you manage the situation should follow a similar logic. Your job is still to do what is best for the individual, team and organisation. Consider whether you, as a manager or leader, can offer the support that is needed, or whether it is outside of your domain. If encouraging the affected individual to try to carry on as normal could have negative consequences for their wellbeing, and therefore impact on the performance of the team, it might be a good idea to offer alternative support, or even some recovery time. If you’re not sure how far social and personal relationships with your team members should go, take a look at this post.

A great place to start might be to define your own EQ and that of your colleagues, along with your various personal profiles, so that you can better understand potential incompatibilities within your team. Profiling is an integral part of our leadership and management programmes. To find out more about developing your ability to deal with emotions in your workplace, get in touch below.

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