How would you rate the atmosphere in your workplace on a scale of one to 10? If you gave it less than 10, the odds are high that negative emotions such as fear, anger and guilt are behind the lower score. If you gave it seven or less, you may have taken a “sick” day or two and considered changing jobs.
Of course, factors such as good pay, reasonable hours, job security and opportunities for advancement are necessary for a good work experience, but it is equally important to pay attention to the emotional undercurrents in a workplace—what the psychologist Daniel Goleman terms “the emotional economy”.
Changing anxiety into confidence
At its best, fear spurs action in proportion to circumstance. If your firm has stated that it will reduce staff by 50% and will announce on Friday who is to go, it makes sense to be afraid. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an emotional response to future uncertainty, which can have the effect of reducing focus, degrading sleep and encouraging unproductive habits such as over-checking and smoking. Most things we worry about never happen. There is an acronym to remind us of this: False Evidence Appearing Real.
The healthy response to feelings of anxiety is to first be scrupulously honest with yourself about their existence, then to face them and take appropriate action. The trick is to learn a more positive acronym: Face Everything And Recover.
Managers can help with this. For example, there will almost invariably be anxiety over performance reviews. A low-key meeting well in advance of this framed in such terms as, “You’re doing great with meeting deadlines and contributing ideas. You need to reduce the number of errors in your written reports”, will go a long way in alleviating anxiety and improving focus.
It’s equally important for managers to acknowledge and manage their own fears. For example, if you have been told by your firm that you have to give the lowest evaluation to 15% of your staff, and you find this has you nervous and looking in advance for justifications, others are likely to pick up on these anxieties. Emotional contagion is very real and it’s far better for the emotional economy if you infect your team with the confidence that comes from appropriately facing fears.
Changing guilt into self-esteem
A lot is said and done regarding the importance of social skills when it comes to establishing and maintaining good communication. The role of emotions, and particularly emotional self-management, is less often discussed, and many believe it is not something that can be learnt. However, recent findings about neuroplasticity make it clear that people can improve their emotional control well into old age.
At its best, guilt is a signal that we have violated a personal standard, but it can also corrode our sense of self-worth and make us too ashamed to repair the damage that caused it. Facing up to the cause of guilty feelings and either apologising to the injured party or making a solemn promise to ourselves to raise our game is the way to transform guilt into self-esteem.
On the other hand, there is the kind of guilt that was conditioned into us by parents, teachers or society. In this case, we need to look at our own adult values. Do I really care if my room is untidy? Is it evil to take a siesta? Letting go of unhelpful guilty feelings frees up energy to spend on things we really care about. Identifying the source of guilt, facing and following through on the action that may be necessary, sifting useful from unhelpful responses and changing habits where desirable—these things are not always easy to do alone, and this is an area where coaching and focused training can be a big help.
Changing anger into well-being
It used to be believed that so-called Type A personalities (high-tension, fast-talking, firm-handshaking, control freaks) were most at risk from heart disease. It was later discovered that only two aspects of such personalities predicted ill health: chronic hostility and perceived lack of control over one’s circumstances. Unexpressed anger can turn to depression. If expressed as hostility, anger breeds more anger. The choice between unhappiness and endless win–lose encounters in a relationship or organisation is a poor one.
The best defence against anger is to say no to it. If you do get angry, you have the problem. Venting is of little or no use. Get calm by, for example, going for a walk or a swim. This should give you some clarity.
Next, ask yourself what is making you feel threatened? What part of the threat is real and what part are you imagining? What do you want? What do you need? Who would it benefit for you to assert these wants and needs to? Again, this is potential coaching territory, but managers can help by staying alert to signs of mounting anger and encouraging the open expression of wants and needs. Assertiveness will transform anger into well-being, a powerful and highly desirable human resource.