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Phil Willcox

Emotion at Work

10th November 2020


Be Heard

Safe Space

Move On

Reciting a poem on workspace, he concluded in reference to an empathetic workspace sympathetic to his needs “If I should have a workspace, that’s for me”.

Workspaces are integral to how we spend our lives, what we do and how we manage our emotions, argued Phil Willcox of Emotion at Work.  Much has been written about management and leadership, but there has been relatively little focus on Emotion as a meaningful concept.  In fact, showing emotion has been seen as a manifestation of weakness in a world which celebrates overt success gained through adversity at the expense of others.

Emotions have come to symbolise many different things to different people.  They are variously caused mainly by a negative reaction in the workplace, including assigning blame, untrusting of others, inauthentic behaviour and situations which cause an emotional rollercoaster, such as poorly managed change.   There is however general agreement that the outcomes of such reactions can be a toxic environment in the workplace and little effort is made in addressing the real cause.

There are many different kinds of emotions but the most appropriate way to address the matter of how to deal with them is to look at them in three distinct categories:


  1. Inappropriate. A high priority has to be given to ensuring that procedures are in place to handle volatile emotions and situations.
  • Valence (positive and negative). Acting and behaviour in response to emotion is important, with the emphasis on “Constructive” (Paul Ekman)
  • Intensity, which in most cases need to be controlled
  • Destructive or hurtful consequences.
  • Example: public disagreements are not very helpful.  Response should be appropriate
  • Build Collaboration. Emotions can either do this or be destructive, breaking down relationships irretrievably.  Harnessing emotions can be constructive but can be difficult to manage and achieve


  1. Unregulated.  Emotions which remain unmanaged always lead to difficulties.  Examples are
  • “Flooding out”, which could be the result of anger, sadness or simply jumping for joy
  • Too much or too little “regulation” can be equally destructive.
  • Undisciplined team and organisational dynamics
  • No boundaries or norms: no one is sure where the line is
  • Inconsistency in boundaries and norms


  1. Suppression.  When emotions are suppressed and “pushed down” in an attempt to bury them, they can be the most destructive when inadequate processes are in place.  They can be self destructive and the result is “Blow Out”, and a hapless manager trying to mediate and bring an explosive situation under control.
  • Many organisations suffer from “Group Think” or limiting of diversity of thinking.  Negative emotions are often centred around more general understanding of diversity (or lack of it) and Identity and can be “blockers” in terms of relationships and engagement.
  • “Face” Saving or Protection. Employees being boxed into a corner is perhaps one of the most dangerous and potentially explosive causes of risks an organisation can face.  If this idea interests you more you may want to look up the work of Erving Goffman.
  • Fitting in. Suppressed emotions as a result of a lack of acceptance can lead to a toxic atmosphere

Away from a shopfloor or group environment, emotions are always present and highly contagious, nowhere more so than over email.   For example, the quickest emotion to react as a result of pressure emails, Teams and Zoom is Outrage, beating criticism, anxiety and resentment.  Other reactions around emotion can surface even through medical conditions alzheimers, when the brain can react to music and dance and cause outbursts of joy (Russian Ballerina), such is power of emotion.

As we are now witnessing, there is no one single issue which can trigger outpouring of emotions in a working environment, but the results can be negative and destructive: it is important to recognise which emotions spread the quickest in our organisations and how these can be harnessed in a constructive way.  We also need to mindful that people need to be aware of where they can go to talk about their emotions.

US Professor Brene Brown has focused much of her research in this area, looking at Vulnerability.  We should all show elements of vulnerability in order to build trust and engagement, in such a way that is appropriate and safe for you as an individual.  The key point here however is that as a leader or manager your vulnerability should be variable and tinged with determination and decisiveness, such that when someone tries to exploit this, you are in a position to refute the exploitation.


Where and how can people be heard?

While Culture is well trodden turf for most organisations, very few succeed in aligning it to their values, with the consequent risk of blocking expressions of emotions. Emotions need to be heard: in reality and there is no single solution or silver bullet, but a series of micro steps can make a huge improvement.   For example, in order to maximise facilitation in practice a network of “mini-cultures” could be adopted which enable trust to be built up, especially amongst close colleagues, with rigorous testing of boundaries.  What may happen is that one or two individuals, in supervisory capacities, assume the role of “filter”: this can lead to excessive strain on individuals concerned but a skilful supervisor can devise an effective way to take these conversations, manage boundaries, and hold them for later use.  But a top performing organisation will have the “attentiveness” to the needs and emotions of their employees such that instances of the need for “filters” are dramatically reduced.

What other methods can be used to understand dynamics and manage emotions in the workplace?

  • Surveys can be very effective.  Some organisations use these weekly or even daily and some use automated emails requesting feedback.   This can build up an aggregate picture but the downside is that it can result in user fatigue and completion of inaccurate information.
  • Mental Health First Aid
  • Colleagues
  • Friends and Family
  • Going for a walk and talking while walking (rather than when seated and resting)
  • “Journaling” – keeping records of conversations and events


Where is a Safe Space?

Emotions can be managed in a working environment and a safe space is where this can be achieved although it doesn’t have exclusively to be in the workplace.

  • Home is the most obvious safe space where trust is strong, as long as the atmosphere is congenial and there is no “contamination” with excessive work and there is genuine space
  • Wobble room in the workplace.  A group of nurses at Derbyshire NHS Trust use it and all take it in turns to check who is in there and whether they might need help.  Cynics might indicate that such a top down initiative  won’t be authentic, but in this case, the nursing peers established the room themselves and the crucial thing is that it was self selecting.
  • Quiet rooms can be effective and have been used for ages.
  • Employee Assistance helpline
  • Anonymous Helpline
  • Building networks, such as informal support networks.  These can however be difficult to manage as they rely on a leader or “Go To” person to manage a safe space.


Moving Forward

Once we consider that we have our emotions under control, how do we move forward?  Once we have satisfied that we have reflected and contextualised, we are in a position to move in/move out.  If at team level, members continue to come back with repeated issues then they haven’t been listened to.    Nancy Kline has done a great of work in this area, having written books on “Time to Think” and lectured around the world, concluding that focus, commitment and no interruptions are a recipe for the creation of an environment which cultivates sound emotional management.     Managing moving forward must include some or all of the following at some point:

  • Expressing the Emotion
  • Reflective Practice
  • “Wise” emotion regulation
  • Selecting or changing situation(s)
  • Reframing
  • Letting go
  • Anonymous helpline (continued!)

A lot of work has been done in this area by James Gross of Stanford University.  His work on emotional suppression and expressive behaviour has contributed hugely to our knowledge of how individuals can be helped to manage especially extreme emotions.  He advocates as a strong set of rules as a means of emotional regulation and self-regulation, especially as it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid interruption online “noise”, where immediate responses are admired and even demanded.

His work has highlighted how suppression is self-support in a negative sense, how it can foster inconsistency and insincerity, and how, in the pressure to conform, this can lead to disengagement and ultimately to total disenchantment with working environment.   Business leaders all have their emotional drivers which affect their decisions.  All want motivated employees but most of them fail to realise that they do not possess the emotional skills to encourage positive emotional drivers in their employees.

What Gross’ work highlights is that in the age of social media and remote working it is becoming increasingly difficult to devise workable rules and self management tools which work.   Research in this area is sadly lacking and is urgently needed.

In conclusion, contrary to mainstream uninformed opinion, emotions in the workplace can be managed.  Too many assumptions are made by business leaders and managers which result in suppression, disillusionment and poor communication.  Appropriate structures, formal and informal, for enabling voices to be heard would reduce instances of adverse mental health and absenteeism.




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