Read and enjoy more of our content here.
“Can’t we just leave our emotions at home?”
A frustrated CEO asked me this question today. He was navigating some cultural challenges on his team. The company was doing well but in a stressful place — multiple concurrent deployments, an unfinished fundraiser, and a steady diet of new hires. All of these forces were creating friction; anger, in-fighting, and even some tears had appeared in what had long been a peaceful office environment.
My answer — was, “No, and you would not want your people to do that even if they could.”
Companies are messy beasts. They are undulating, disorderly collections of humans. Oftentimes we (particularly those of a technical persuasion) are frustrated by this reality. They yearn for cultures a Vulcan would envy — emotionless, logical, and focused. Here is a simple truth — I call it the transitive property of company emotions.
Companies are made up of Humans → Humans have Emotions → Therefore, Companies have Emotions → And Emotions are Messy
Hence, Companies are Messy.
“Why do we need to discuss our feelings? Empathize? Be thoughtful in our word choice. Why do emotions have to play a role at companies at all?”
Short of mass lobotomizing (such as I suspect must occur at Zappos), the paradigm of the messy human is the reality young companies would serve well to embrace. Think for a moment about the people on your team who work the hardest. You know the type. They come in early, stay late, respond to emails in the wee hours, and are among the first to volunteer for extra duty. They pick up their teammates, put the common good first, and sing the company’s praises whenever the opportunity presents itself. What drives that person if not for love, passion, and shared values? We know that cash is a limited motivator. Is it a desire for attention? Perhaps. But more likely, it’s because the employee has found an emotional connection to the company and to the team.
“But wouldn’t companies be more productive without emotions? Wouldn’t meetings be faster? Execution be more efficient? Communication more straightforward?”
Maybe, maybe not. But would you really want to work in an environment where smiling, laughing, passionate debate and a deep desire to win were absent? We were not put on this earth to produce robotically. We have the innate ability to emotionally soar and, if Darwin is to be believed, that must be for a reason. As evidence, don’t we put more effort into those projects that lift our spirits not just our mind?
Further — companies exist to create something of value for others (ideally in a manner that is economically viable; #notsnapchat). That typically means having to engage humans other than your coworkers. Guess what? They’re messy too.
“Ok — then why can’t we just leave our NEGATIVE emotions at home?”
Because we don’t get to control our emotions, we don’t choose how we feel. We just feel. What we can control is how we respond to that feeling.
I understand the appeal of eliminating our negative emotions. Emotions spread from teammate to teammate. Employees are not isolated from one another, so emotional states quickly amplify. We’ve all met the one cancerous but talented deputy-downer who is quick to dismiss ideas, promote cynicism, and avoid collaboration. Allow that person free reign for too long, and the disease will spread. Fire that person quickly.
“But even if we fire all of our deputy-downers, how do we eradicate even occasional but hugely unproductive flare-ups from perfectly well-intentioned humans?”
We can’t. We’re humans. Not machines. We are not (yet) so easily programmed that we can toggle on and off those emotions which better serve us in the moment (though — total aside — kudos to my friend’s extraordinary series Nexus with a view on what feels like humanity’s inevitable future).
“So what do we do when our demons get the better of us?”
Ask why. Practice self-inquiry. Stay curious. Learn to pause. Respond, don’t react. Practice stillness. Meditate. Eventually, if you choose to put forth the effort and encourage your colleagues to do the same, flare-ups will decrease in intensity and frequency. Not because you’ve chemically altered someone or sliced out their frontal lobe but because you’ve learned to notice how you’re feeling.
Awareness is the first step; when you know you’re triggered, angry, irritated, pained, or simply frustrated, then you can choose what to do next. You can choose whether to still smile, remove yourself from a conversation, or count to 10. Any of those actions are likely to loosen the demon’s grip. And that is the secret to being just a bit less messy.