HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Why Leaders Need the Courage to Pay Attention to Emotions in the Workplace

With 35+ years of professional and Human Resources experience and a PhD in organizational psychology, I have learned that organizations that recognize the emotions of their people increase motivation, loyalty, and teamwork. As we are facing unprecedented health, economic, and social challenges, companies that have prioritized understanding and supporting the whole person, including the person’s feelings and emotions, have a competitive advantage. 

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Yet paying attention to employees’ emotions often remains countercultural, despite the popular emphasis on “bringing your whole self to work.” That phrase tends to mean “bring us your energy, ideas, and creativity but not your confusion, sadness, or pain.” Employees are expected to leave their family and personal issues outside the office and focus on performance, productivity, and results. 

Now, home and work life have collided. With lines of separation blurred, keeping emotions out of business can be an impossible task. The best leaders know team members are people first and perform best when their humanity is recognized and valued. But, we also can’t always put aside work to attend exclusively to people’s emotional needs. Instead, we need to make space for employees to express their feelings and create a supportive and connected emotional culture. 

Start By Instilling a Sense of Community

Based on the work of Patrick Lencioni and The Energy Project, I recommend starting team meetings with the question: “How are you feeling?” People may respond with “excited,” “overwhelmed,” “energized,” or “sad.” This exercise acknowledges that feelings are present and opens up space for further conversation, if needed. I encourage leaders to create a greater sense of community in their teams by initiating practices acknowledging the whole person.

Make It Personal and Practice

Managing emotions in the workplace can be challenging for leaders who have been trained in cultures that encourage a single-minded focus on performance and results. The only way for leaders to be comfortable addressing topics once considered personal and inappropriate to discuss in the workplace is practice. For example, the social focus on systemic racism today creates an important opportunity for leaders to engage in dialogue with their employees. While some may feel that emotions and points of view related to this sensitive topic are better left to the “experts,” I have seen throughout my career that efforts, not only from formal training put together by HR but also from leaders who share their personal experiences, can be particularly impactful.

Sharing personal stories makes us more comfortable talking about sensitive topics. I witnessed a powerful example of this when a leader in her early 40s shared that she had never acknowledged her Jewish faith with people at work, despite the fact that it was central to who she was. She talked about her struggle to integrate her cultural identity with her public and work personas. For the first time, her colleagues became aware of how this leader was impacted by staying silent.

As an African American and a female corporate leader, I have a heightened sensitivity to the social justice dialogue and its potential impact on African Americans in the workplace. As I engage other African American colleagues and friends about social justice, I hear about how little we are known culturally within our organizations. Whether this is because some are innately private—as I am—or because many are exceptionally good at assimilating in predominantly white schools, communities, and companies, many of us are struck by how little our white colleagues understand about the basic context of our lives. We have shared our surprise that some white colleagues don’t realize that even we—the educated and successful—suffer from racism, overt and through microaggressions, and the emotional toll this takes. Many of us have kept this aspect of our lives hidden away, but now it is being broadcast across our news and social channels. As part of my responsibility as a leader, I am committing to engaging in this global dialogue if it helps others learn and grow to achieve greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Listen, Learn, and Make Positive Change

While many organizations are making public statements about social and political issues, and some are following up with actions, I believe companies and leaders also need to create space to hear the voices, emotions, and lived experiences of their own employees. Without this, we will not just ignore the difficulties our employees may be enduring but also contribute to them.

This won’t always be easy. We need the courage to be uncomfortable, make mistakes, and recognize and apologize for those mistakes. We need to risk sharing more of ourselves so others can risk sharing more of themselves, too. We will need the will to keep moving forward despite inevitable setbacks. But isn’t this what we expect from leaders? The courage to take risks, to be uncomfortable, to keep moving forward? By practicing the skills and instituting the mechanisms that create open conversations, we can master yet another discipline of leadership. We can help our employees and organizations thrive and achieve the benefits of a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace and world.

Pamela Puryear, PhD, Senior Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer, Zimmer Biomet. Pamela Puryear was appointed Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer in January 2019. She has extensive global leadership experience in Human Resources, including 3 years with Pfizer, where she served as Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer.