On a hot summer day in Brooklyn, I sat around a lunch table with my colleagues talking about Wholeness. In particular, our emotional wholeness in the context of work.
Recently, I’ve found myself really struggling when working with teams that are striving to invite the “whole self” into the workplace. I was asking my colleagues what their experiences were in this dimension, and one of them shared a poignant example that helped me understand where I was getting stuck.
She was implementing a new meeting process that the team agreed upon together, when in the middle of the meeting, someone had an outburst of anger about the new process and proceeded to interrupt the flow of the meeting. My experiences of “wholeness” with teams have been similar—people interrupting each other haphazardly, team members being “blunt”, or leaders taking out their frustrations on others.
Compared to this “emotional wild west,” I have started to prefer the contained, sterile feel that is the hallmark of corporate cultures, where we’re expected to show up as our professional selves only. Compared to the threat of volatility, I have grown to prefer the forced calm of this culture—despite its obvious limitations.
Yet, I so believe in creating workspaces where we can show up with more and more of who we really are, and how we really feel. I stand for this because, through my own personal journey and experiences, I’ve come to believe in the power of emotions to move people and work forward in radically efficient ways. My own emotions often hold important intelligence, and wisdom. They point to the things I need to pay attention to. They push me to make important changes. They help me discern more clearly. I work relentlessly in noticing, uncovering, and working with my emotions. In my work as a facilitator and consultant, I continue to observe how the inclusion of emotional information can help me navigate group dynamics more skillfully in service of deepened efficacy and creativity. So, why am I struggling so much while witnessing others express their emotions freely?
During that lunch conversation, I finally realized why: if we assume “bringing our whole self” to mean unleashing our conditioned emotional responses and patterns on others, then we are signing up for a real roller coaster ride. The conversation around emotions at the workplace has often been equated with two choices: emotional suppression, or emotional outbursts. The truth is, neither one of those options gets us very far in creating effectiveness or belonging in the workplace.
We have a third option: we can invite in our emotions as information, intelligence, and intuition. We can include our emotional sensing as one of the many data sets available to us. In doing so, we create space for a deeper sense of belonging and psychological safety.
Psychological safety was a phenomenon discovered by Amy Edmondson in her research on team learning, and popularized by Google’s internal research on the qualities that characterize high performing teams. In Google’s research, of the five dynamics essential to a team’s success, psychological safety came out as the most salient and important factor. Psychological safety is defined as an environment in which “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other”.
Creating such an environment requires us to effectively engage our emotions. Contrary to popular belief, a psychological safe environment does not necessarily bear the hallmarks of harmony. If anything, it invites in risk-taking. The kind of risk-taking we’ve all experienced when we challenged a colleague’s ideas, without guarantee that it will go over well. The kind of vulnerability we’ve all felt during tough conversations, when giving or receiving important feedback. Risk and vulnerability inherently include our emotional journeys. But in order to be able to tolerate risk and vulnerability, we are going to need a solid foundation of emotional maturity.
Bringing our whole self requires the deliberate and conscious exploration and integration of the emotional dimension, both in our individual and collective experience. In my own journey cultivating this capacity, I’ve been guided tremendously by two components from Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence: self-awareness and self-regulation. Self-awareness is the capacity to examine and become familiar with our emotions and emotional conditioning. As much as we’d like to believe in and rely on our rationality, we are often unconsciously led by our unexamined habitual, emotional patterns.
Self-regulation is the capacity to manage our emotions in the moment. This term often gets conflated with emotional containment. The call to self-regulate is construed as, and sometimes also intended, as a call to stuff your feelings and start behaving. The most insidious aspect of this is that our unconscious bias often leads us to use this call on those who hold minority identities and can contribute to further silencing some people while granting others more freedom.
However, the true intention and meaning of self-regulation is the capacity to notice and manage our emotions in the moment. During the most high-stakes moment when our emotions are running high, self-regulation points to practices that actually physiologically help us regulate our nervous system. In smaller moments, in our day to day life, according to Goleman, self-regulation is characterized by ”an inclination towards reflection and thoughtfulness; acceptance of uncertainty and change; integrity – specifically, the ability to say no to impulsive urges.”
Said another way, if we want to build cultures where we can bring more of who we are, cultures that are inclusive and psychologically safe, we have to build our capacity for self-awareness, self-regulation, and the mature expression of our emotions.
Ultimately what the skillset of emotional maturity allows for is more choice. During emotional moments, our brains are commanded not by our cerebral cortex but our limbic system. We all have conditioned emotional patterns that we are constantly running unconsciously. As we cultivate our capacity to notice and manage our responses, we have more choices. This doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t express our frustration or outrage in provocative ways. It means that when we do, we’re making a deliberate choice, and that is a difference that makes all the difference. Our maturity is comprised of our greater self-knowledge which contributes to greater choicefulness, which results in clearer and (usually) more generative intentions.
More importantly, far from suppressing our emotions, this practice calls on us to notice them, it calls on us to feel our feelings, to listen to the messages hidden within them, and then make deliberate choices. It is this choicefulness that ultimately allows us to navigate tough moments skillfully.
From Political to Authentic:
Inviting in our frustration, joy, sadness, and passion deliberately and consciously looks very different from projecting our frustrations and anxieties onto others. Underpinning the latter are the very same power dynamics that privilege a few, and suppress many others. We get into situations where the most powerful players can use their emotional intensity as currency to manipulate the group towards their agenda.
As we consider this, it may feel tempting to go back to the sterile, seemingly uncomplicated separation of the personal and professional selves. But, it turns out, the seeming simplicity of that is a facade. Underlying the sterile, unemotional conversations, is a swath of political games that create silos, bureaucracy, and disempowerment.
In the world of work, we’ve been conditioned to believe that meeting our needs is a game of politics. We have to talk to the right people, we have to create powerpoint presentations, we often can’t be explicit about our agendas. It is the survival of the fittest, and the ones who play the game best win. That’s just the way it is.
Yet as the contexts we’re swimming in become more and more uncertain, the silos, political games, and bureaucracy are actively causing harm by slowing us down and putting us out of touch with the rapidly changing reality we have to deal with.
New models of management, like Holacracy, offer an alternative approach designed to actively optimize for the uncertainty and complexity of our times by inviting in each member of an organization as ‘sensor’ of the organization. Holacracy deliberately invites in different perspectives and agendas in an explicit way with the question, “what do you need?” during a weekly tactical meeting. When the needs of different members are diametrically opposed, Holacracy aims to deal with them explicitly and transparently, using the purpose of what we’re trying to achieve as the guiding principle. Holacracy invites in objections, and disagreements in service of the purpose.
The Gift of Being Human:
The structures and processes offered by Holacracy offer a powerful alternative to status quo. Yet the emotional and cultural dimension of our experience in the workplace is left untouched, which makes Holacracy’s approach incomplete, and ultimately only partially effective. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of Holacracy has been that it seems to be designed for robots, not humans. Systems and structures can’t stand alone when humans are at the heart of them. Their effectiveness can only be truly felt when we create psychological safety, when we have a team dynamic and culture where we can be vulnerable and take risks.
In my experience, one of the biggest risks we choose, is the risk of authenticity. Yet that’s also the most rewarding risk. Showing up as ourselves, feeling our feelings, sharing our experience is deeply risky, and also the gift, of being human.
I truly believe that embracing this gift is our ticket to survival. Creating great workplaces is not just a ‘nice to have’. Cracking the code on how we can come together with more wisdom and achieve truly amazing things is imperative to meeting and surviving the complexity of our time.
Usha Gubbala is an organization transformation consultant at August Public Inc. She holds an immense passion for designing new ways of working that support teams in becoming more collaborative, self-managed and innovative. She believes in the power of creating workplaces where employees feel energized by meaningful work and supported in continually deepening in their own development. She works with traditional enterprise organizations to Trojan Horse mindsets and practices that build their capacity to skillfully navigate uncertainty and complexity. Usha holds a Masters degree in Organization Development, and is a Certified Integral Facilitator and Holacracy Practitioner.