How is Your Workplace Limiting Your Emotional Freedom?

Note: In my last post, I Want to Know More About You, I referenced research that looked at the ways in which emotional repression is built into our social landscape, especially affecting men. So I decided to reprise the article below because the more I experience, the more emotional suppression I see in every type of workplace. It’s woven into the systems that dominate work. Often it is subtle; emotional norms are embedded in behavioral norms that send clear signals – this is what’s acceptable here.  
Emotional freedom is not counter to optimal performance and productivity – it is central to it. This is one of the beliefs that keeps paternalism and cronyism alive.  I’m not talking about the kind of  emotional “acting out,” that leads to aggression, bullying, gossip and deceit, but honest and balanced emotional self-expression.  
Without it, humans suffer, relationships become commodities, creativity is stifled and resentment erodes contribution. Too often emotional repression is accomplished by willing self-repression. While this is understandable when someone believes (often rightly) that their job is at stake (especially when exacerbated by tight labor markets) emotional suppression comes at a high cost – to our bodies, our psyches and our organizations. Whether you’re discovering this post for the first time, or giving it a re-read, I hope you will find it worthwhile. 
We read a great deal about employee engagement these days.   Great talent is supposedly in short supply. Many organizations are looking to attract and retain the best people, especially in anticipation of economic challenges that are the new normal. 
We scrutinize what constitutes great leadership.  Phrases like “Culture eats strategy for lunch” (or is it breakfast?) are becoming the new organizational memes.  Yet, we still can’t seem to get some basics of creating healthy organizations right.
One fundamental problem is that most organizations don’t see themselves as dynamic systems.   Most strategies and remedies are still based on parts thinking.  While some organizations acknowledge their internal and external connectedness, they still largely function along segregated lines.
According to Peter Senge, author of the seminal book on organizational systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline, “Organizations are living phenomena in a very real sense and they were appreciated in that spirit for a very long time. It was only a couple of hundred years ago that our view of organizations—and particularly business organizations—really began to change. When we started to harness the power of machines in the early years of the industrial era, gradually we started to see more and more of life as machine-like. It leads us to see everything, including ourselves, as nothing but an elaborate set of mechanisms. This way of thinking has developed insidiously over a few hundred years, to the point where we no longer realize how captive we are to it.”
Few would disagree that cultural forces are instrumental to shaping organizational life, but it’s challenging to understand the impact of culture on daily human experience.   After all, organizational culture is the aggregate of shared thinking, beliefs and values and it is – dynamic.   That dynamic is most powerfully influenced by the vision and practices of organizational leadership. Because emotional contagion is real, the thoughts, feelings and actions of organizational leaders are constantly reinforcing or shifting the dynamics of an organization’s direction.

It’s Viral

John Wenger, author of the excellent blog, Quantum Shifting, writes, “We are so infected by the culture of our organizations that we lose awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will say, “What water? In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert upon us.”
The constant demands organizational life makes on our emotional psyches are both overt and obscure.  In the blizzard of tasks that string a work day together, many people are simply reacting to events as they are presented.  But within the undercurrents of communication, culture is influencing feelings that are shaping behavior.
As a result, each organization develops an emotional landscape. Conveyed by the formal and informal norms of every organization, department, team and workplace relationship, what is emotionally acceptable to express and what is taboo is quickly learned.
While organizational structure and processes are always impelling feeling and action, employees are often not aware of how. Commonly at the root of conflicts, internal and external, are the underlying forces of these systemic influences.   Because we’re not looking at the macro picture to understand the micro dynamics, we miss the real drivers of behavioral outcomes.
The past fifteen years have brought a new understanding of the brain and especially of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Simply put, we now know that brains are socially interdependent. They are in a sense – systems within systems.  In fact, the emerging field of “organizational cognitive neuroscience” (OCN) is the cognitive neuroscientific study of organizational behavior.  OCN lets us start to understand the relationship between our organizational behavior and our brains.

How Organizational Demands Impact What We Feel

Emotional prohibition and freedom within organizations is determined by a multiplicity of forces. How individuals will be emotionally affected by those forces will depend on their needs, beliefs and values.   While some people can tolerate and adjust in restrictive emotional environments, most will wither and often resist.  In most cases, this is occurring unconsciously. Because much of the emotional adaptation takes place outside of awareness, dysfunction is often the result. Often organizations try to “remedy” problems by identifying the “problem employees” and not looking at the systems influencing cultural behaviors.
From an individual, group and organizational perspective, it is vitally important to understand the forces can impede or encourage emotional freedom.
Some organizational forces that inhibit emotional expression:

  • Dishonesty. The singular value that most of our clients identify as being critical to effective performance is honesty. That’s why the rampant dishonesty of many workplaces has such a deleterious effect on employee participation and vital workplace relationships.  Nearly every organization has its “truth” norms and every employee has to crack the code of what is allowed. Often this occurs unintentionally. Even if senior leadership intends and professes their allegiance to transparency, an employee’s relationship with a manager can set the tone that overrides willingness to honesty share thoughts and feelings.  At the macro level the mismatch between what an organization says and what it does also determines “safety levels” for self-expression. Sadly, many employees say it is simply “too risky” to be honest at work.
  • Lack of Trust The correlate to honesty.  Overall institutional trust levels had slipped in public opinion polls even prior to the 2008 recession. Since then, they’ve dipped even further.  Charles Green, author of the Trusted Advisor (book and blog) points out that trust is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need first to identify the trust realm; are we talking about personal trust, or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?” Trust is after all an idea about a set of behaviors that either reinforce our sense of comfort and safety or alert our brains that the “risk” is too high.  Lack of trust influences what we feel and the actions we take. It is the cornerstone of decision-making. Low trust produces feelings of anxiety, apprehension and fear.
  • Coercive Power.  The nature of organizational hierarchy and power has got significant attention lately.  I’ve written in this blog about the slow death of authoritarian leadership and the need for greater critical thinking abilities to challenge the imposed status quo. But most institutions are still dominated by central authority whose very nature (and “success”) is predicated on coercing behaviors that conform to the will of its senior leadership. In their fascinating book, “The Starfish and the Spider,” authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom write about the difficulties of the Spanish Army in defeating the Apache Tribes of Southwest America. Turns out the Apache had no centralized chief, only what was called a Nant’an (Geronimo was a Nant’an) a spiritual and cultural leader with no coercive power.  In fact, Geronimo did not, and could not, tell the tribes to fight. He could only lead by example. If the tribal members thought it was a good idea, they would follow. The phrase “you should” doesn’t even exist in the Apache language.  Certainly centralized power has its place in organizing some human activities. But its top-down approach is being seriously examined in light of global interconnectedness and instant communication.  One question central to evaluating coercive power arrangements must focus on the effect coercion has on emotional expression.
  • Peer Pressure & Bullyism.  Findings in neuroscience show that the brain is constantly on alert for what it perceived as threat and reward.  While most people understand that peer pressure has real consequences, most workers don’t yet comprehend its brain-altering impact. Workplace behaviors that range from subtle coercion (often couched in humor) to outright bullying can place people in emotionally defensive positions.   Because many people within the workplace haven’t developed their collaborative and conflict management skills, communication, especially when differences occur, can resort to dominant groups (or individuals) imposing their will on others.  Autonomy is not simply a nice idea, but an essential domain of healthy brain functioning.
  • Stress.  Most workplaces are pressure cookers. Overwork is epidemic. Sixty hour work weeks are common, often spoken about with pride and admiration.  No matter what “strategies” people use, lack of rest, movement, diversity of activity and poor nutrition will result in allostatic load. The term describes the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress which can cause cumulative strain and damage the body in the long run. Under these conditions, it’s not uncommon for the brain to be activated in a low-level fight or flight mode. Unresolved emotional issues are easy to trigger and re-trigger under these circumstances. Impatience can trigger frustration which in turn can trigger anger. Physical and mental exhaustion sets the stage for these emotions to overwhelm personal performance and interpersonal relations.
  • Morals & Ethics. Our personal beliefs and values play a major role in how we experience and act in the workplace. The disconnect between organizational practices, senior leadership and individual performance is often very high. In a 2010 Maritz poll, only 11% of American employees strongly agreed that their managers showed consistency between their words and their actions. Only 7% thought their senior leaders and co-workers looked out for their best interests.  The poll also found that about 20% of respondents didn’t believe that their company’s leader was completely honest and ethical.  Of those who responded this way, only 3% said they looked forward to coming to work. The natural emotional response under these circumstances is cynicism, mistrust, anxiety, resentment and anger.

An employees’ real “engagement” is not possible without the emotional resonance that comes from a belief in the integrity of an organization and its’ leaders.  There will always be emotional spillover from an individual’s personal needs and feelings into organizational culture. Self-development and greater skill in self-management can go a long way to helping that stay balanced. However, nothing can influence individual performance and interpersonal relationships as powerfully as institutional culture.
I’m sure you heard the unattractive colloquialism  “A fish rots from the head down.”  The phrase underscores the importance of leadership, at least from the perspective of centralized authority. Whether controlling or open, leaders and the organizational cultures they shape set the tone for emotional expression.  And the people will follow.
Maybe it’s time to study Geronimo in business schools! 
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related articles: Why Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years!, Why Do So Many People Still Believe that Self-Development is Therapy? Collaboration: The Essential Emotions

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