Managing emotion in the workplace

The state capture report, recently released by the Public Protector, was alarming enough. But judging from the social media reaction, the real shocker came the following day at the sight of Eskom CEO Brian Molefe crying at a briefing.

Shedding tears in public is still seen as somewhat unseemly, even though many high-powered figures have done it – including Barack Obama and Steve Jobs, who famously cried about everything from the terms of an early Apple product warranty (he wanted a longer guarantee period) to Time magazine’s decision to put the Mac (and not Jobs) on its cover.

As economic and competitive pressure mounts, tensions are running high in workplaces around SA and managers may find it harder to check their emotions at the office door. Not that showing emotion is necessarily a bad thing. Your team will struggle to rally behind a new project if you don’t display passion and enthusiasm.

Shedding tears of frustration can show that you feel very strongly about an issue, and can create a moment of honesty and connection with your team members.

Defending crying in the office in her bestseller, Lean In, Facebook COO (and frequent crier herself) Sheryl Sandberg says: “Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.”

The other emotional outlet – anger – continues to be more socially acceptable than crying (at the Eskom briefing, a raging chairman Ben Ngubane lost his temper, but this didn’t even cause a ripple of social media reaction). In the end, however, anger can cause a lot of damage to your team. Repeated tantrums and tongue lashings will create an atmosphere of unpredictability and distrust, and will cause irreparable damage to your relationships.

While there is a place for emotion in the office, it needs to be appropriate, says Karen van Zyl, a consultant at The Anger and Stress Management Centre in Pretoria and Sandton.

When you make people uncomfortable or have to apologise afterwards for causing offence, you have overstepped the mark. Crying constantly when you don’t get your way is immature and manipulative; so is tearing up because you feel sorry for yourself.

Emotional outbursts are also unproductive (you will have to spend a long time building bridges destroyed in the heat of the moment) and will damage your reputation. (Studies show that women are judged particularly harshly when they cry or react emotionally.) Also, if you start crying or lose your temper, you immediately give up some ground in a fight.

Key to preventing an emotional outburst is self-awareness, says Van Zyl. It is important to constantly monitor the thoughts rushing through your head, and to check your reaction. When you feel a rush of emotion, keep the following in mind:

Take time out

“When something happens that upsets or provoke you, don’t react immediately,” says Van Zyl. First, excuse yourself by saying something like, “I need to think about what you said, let’s resume the conversation at another time.” Then, remove yourself from the situation and find a quiet place to recover and calm down.

Distract yourself

When you can’t leave the environment, try to remain calm by diverting your attention: focus on your breathing, start counting backwards from 100 or use calming self-talk, says Van Zyl. Keep a stress ball close or focus on doodling on a pad of paper. 

Address the root cause

While somewhat embarrassing, crying or yelling can be cathartic, alleviating some of your stress during a difficult moment. Repressing your frustration and other emotions instead can kill you in the end. It will lead to mounting stress, serious health conditions and may eventually erupt in something worse than a bout of crying.

You therefore simply have to address the source of what is causing your emotional reaction, says Van Zyl. Be assertive and vocal about what is bothering you. 

Follow these three steps:

1. When you are calm, state what is making you uncomfortable or unhappy.
2. Express your needs. Focus on how you would like to be treated.
3. Convey empathy. This is vital, says Van Zyl. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and express empathy, by saying something like, “I appreciate that you’re tired.” Using empathy will keep the lines of communication open.

When dealing with a difficult colleague

Try to remain calm when you are confronted with aggression from a colleague. Do not fight fire with fire; don’t react in anger, which will only fuel the conflict. Instead, shut down the conversation: Say something like, “I’ve heard what you said, now I need to think about it.”

Eliminate the trigger

Identify whether there are any triggers (a person or event) that usually prompt an emotional response – and then avoid these, wherever possible.

Don’t bad-mouth others

Whatever you do, don’t blame others for your own overreaction. It is disempowering.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 17 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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