Emotions In The Workplace

Guest post by John Hunter, founder of the CuriousCat.com.

This interview on NPR, How To Harness The Power Of Emotions In The Workplace, provides some good thoughts on psychology in the workplace. There is often much more focus on the data part of W. Edwards Deming’s ideas, and while using data to understand and improve is very important, Dr. Deming understood the critical importance of understanding that employees must be understood and treated as people, and not treated as cogs in a machine. See our resource page for Deming on Management: Psychology.

One challenge with treating people this way is all of them react differently, even in the same situation. From the interview:

Emotions happen when a deadline gets moved or when we don’t get invited to a meeting. They happen when your boss sends a cryptic email saying “see me ASAP” or when a co-worker gets credit for a project they barely contributed to (again).

My reaction when reading “didn’t get invited to a meeting” is: great, I don’t have to sit through another frustrating meeting. My guess is that isn’t the emotion the author had in mind (though maybe it is). In any event, there are certainly people that would be frustrated about being excluded and other people who would be glad. My guess is most people (probably nearly all) would be frustrated “when a co-worker gets credit for a project they barely contributed to (again).”

The challenge of dealing with emotions in the workplace is one reason I think people avoid dealing with them if possible. There are so many ways to slip up and create more problems. This is especially true if an organization has largely avoided such issues in the past. After people accept good faith efforts are being made and see the benefits, they will likely be more forgiving of slip-ups. But there are good reasons for managers to fear treading on this ground.

I think another reason people are reluctant to bring more focus to emotions is they believe it will just be a bunch of navel gazing and excuse making that doesn’t actually focus on improving the workplace. In my opinion, the way similar efforts have been made in the past gives people good reason to feel that way. Others may disagree with that opinion. If you accept it, and maybe even if you don’t, I think there is good reason to focus on how this effort is going to improve the workplace. How are we going to be more effective? How are we going to increase cooperation and decrease harmful conflict, etc. The adjective “harmful” there, I think, is important as conflict can be useful in, for example, a debate on the merits of one approach over another.

Blog posts are useful in many ways, but this complex topic is well beyond the scope of a blog post. This post can remind those already practicing Deming’s ideas at work the importance of an understanding of psychology to practicing Deming’s management ideas. And it may spur some to read a bit more, listen to experts on the topic, reflect a bit more on this topic, or make some efforts at work to actively consider psychology in your actions and the decisions you make.

The interview has some ideas to think about and points to some useful resources (as does Deming on Management: Psychology).

Venting is useful for a small period of time, if you’re doing it to someone you trust. We always say don’t just do something, stand there. If you’re feeling a really strong emotion, you sometimes just need to calm down because you’re not in a rational state [to] figure out what you want to do next.

Venting isn’t productive from a mechanical way of thinking. The venting isn’t a value-added activity. But we are human beings and not machines. Venting may well allow you to let out some frustration and get back into a better state of mind where you will be more productive. But venting also has an affect on the person you vent to, and that could be negative so it is important to be careful. And things can be complicated; there could easily be situations where a little bit of venting very occasionally is healthy but going past some tipping point will serve to demotivate the person you are venting to.

Harnessing positive emotions (pride, joy, excitement…) is an important component of using psychology in the workplace to improve. This is ignored too often.

I do think managers should spend more time making efforts around psychology in the workplace, partially because so little time is spent on it normally. I believe managers should be spending time working on making the organization function well; this includes building the improvement capabilities of the organization (sponsoring and assisting and working on PDSAs etc.) and creating an environment where people are able to find joy in work.

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