When Rocks Crumble at Work
Can a professional work environment and emotional conversation co-exist?
I was facing my 85 subordinates, wearing my toughness mask tight on without a single crack, telling them in a stable voice that a colleague was just killed in a terror attack. Internally, I was a terrible mess of shock, grief, and fear — but not a drop of it leaked outside. This behavior is exactly what is expected from you when you are the commander officer of a military unit: to keep your emotions locked in a vault and to focus on the mission.
No one has ever told me to perpetuate this behavior in the workplace, once I was released from the army and pursued my first job as a customer service representative in a big corporate. They didn’t have to. This behavioral pattern was so deeply ingrained in me by now, as well as subtly implied by the business leadership avenue, that I didn’t bother to question it.
Who am I kidding; I myself believed so hard that it was the right thing to do, and advocated a total elimination of emotional expression at work — that questioning it was, well, out of the question. A leader in the workplace, I concluded, should remain the solid rock that never breaks or reveals a sign of emotion that doesn’t contribute to the shred sense of morale.
Throughout the years that followed, I wore many masks. I was the hard worker, the fast learner, sometimes the humorist, more often the rational optimist, but never the colorfully emotional that I really was — as we all are. The boss is making a hurtful comment? Suck it up. A piece of news that I was editing during my work at the news desk is triggering a personal trauma? Take a deep breath and keep polishing the item to perfection. An employee (by that time, I’m a senior editor) seems troubled at work? I’ll approve them some time off if they ask for it. No need to talk about what’s out of the professional scope. Unless it’s fun. Weightless. Airy enough not to cause a scene.
“I think I need professional help”, one of my girlfriends told me over coffee at one point during those years. “It’s embarrassing every time I cry at work”.
“You cry at work?”, I was intrigued.
“I cry every time someone criticizes me or says something that hurts me. I’m just too sensitive, it’s so unprofessional”.
Her reply failed to remove my blinders. Back then, it didn’t occur to me that there was nothing wrong with my friend, and everything wrong with how workplaces sometimes treat their employees, bathing in toxicity, disabling any room for supportive emotional conversation — all in the name of cold, sterile professionalism.
Dancing with your advisor
The first time I’m willing to notice the cracks in the system is ten years after entering the work world, and 5,262 km from home. I’m sitting in a university classroom in Karlskrona, Sweden, on the first day of an intense masters’ program, and my professor — an American woman and the program alumna herself — makes a commentary that catches me unguard: “You’re going to see me at the students’ parties while you spend this year abroad because, you know, I live here too”. We all laugh. I imagine that it must be weird to hang out with the academic staff, but I realize that she has a point.
It didn’t prepare me, though, for what was coming next. Shared meals with the teachers and advisors. Long check-ins within our working groups of students, which involved highly personal sharing. And the tears. Yes, some of us were actually crying during an academic session, when we dived into the intersection of social and personal change. I wasn’t one of them (too deeply ingrained, remember?) but that emotional display struck a chord with me.
I felt something opening up, and my first reaction was to shut it down. Forcefully. When a team member didn’t show up to work during our practicum project because she needed time for herself to process a family crisis, I was mad. Instead of appreciating her honesty, I had reinforced the emotion-free professional attitude that I believed got me to where I was.
But the water of change kept carving the rock and words like “empathy”, “listening”, and “hold space for someone” made their way into our curriculum and slowly into my professional jargon. I could start seeing why it’s important, even if I still had a long way to embody that practice myself within the context of work.
Until I found myself sitting in an academic library working on my thesis paper, during a rough day influenced by personal issues and tension at home (I had my spouse and two toddlers spending with me the year abroad), when my research partner looked me in the eyes and asked: “Are you OK?”
“I’m good, everything is going well”, I was about to shoot my regular answer, when I heard myself replying: “No, not really”. We didn’t write even one paragraph for our paper that day, but I’ve bridged a years’ gap of understanding what it really means to be human in a working environment.
Carving deeper into the stone
My growing curiosity and astonishment of my own and the societal blindness to the necessity of emotional conversations at work led me slowly but consistently towards what became my life mission. Emotional wellbeing and burnout prevention are fancy and branded representations of what I’m deeply fascinated about: our humanity intersected with our mission. The personal journey and professional mastery intertwined.
- Can we make those two spheres complementing rather than threatening each other’s existence?
- How can emotional conversations and interactions be facilitated in a professional working environment?
- What is the role of leadership in encouraging, supporting, and initiating emotional openness at work, and to what extent?
- How can we remove the blinders that so many of us have been carrying for years? The blinders that hinder us from seeing people beyond their roles and statuses; The blinders that hold us back from showing our true colors without the fear of being judged; The blinders that make us confuse vulnerability with weakness, instead of coupling vulnerability with courage and leadership.
These are the questions that occupy me constantly, and the more intensively I pose them — the more supportive examples I observe during my interactions. The hospital’s head of department who felt alienated and started weekly team check-ins, and now he knows that “they will always have my back”, if to use his words; The regional sales director who wasn’t comfortable with her company’s strict and formal policy towards employees, and encouraged her staff to share with her their personal struggles, promising she won’t say a word but simply support them during rough days; Or my own team who carved into the stone even deeper, while challenging me to practice the fine balance between professional work ethics and healthy emotional conversations without missing a beat on both.
I know, easier said than done. There was one more obstacle I still needed to overcome.
I’m not your therapist
I can sense the skeptical look sneaking into your eyes. I’m not a mind-reader; I simply had the exact same hesitation. Are bosses now expected to perform as psychologists as well? Does the workplace become the new therapy clinic? And how on earth do we squeeze more interactions into an over-busy, ever-demanding, fully packed working routine?
The answer came from an unexpected source: my inbox. A stranger messaged me about his fragile mental situation. I carefully replied with empathy, acknowledged his willingness to take action, and encouraged him to reach out for professional help. This exchange was hardly new to me; burnout prevention and emotional wellbeing cultivation, my field of practice, trigger different mental struggles. My professional training does not replace seeing a therapist, and I see my responsibility in these cases to refer them to see one. I need to set the boundaries — for the sake of all sides involved, I keep reminding myself.
This time it made me pause. I need to set the boundaries for the sake of all sides involved, I repeated my own advice and started making the application to emotional conversations in the workplace.
- Do all work settings are suitable for the facilitation of emotional conversations?
- How, when, and with whom do we draw the line?
- How can we make it clear that the open conversation is not counseling, but a safe space to share and air out distressful feelings in a supportive environment?
- How can we balance between meeting the needs of the employees, the boss, and the business organization?
The questions are piling up on a regular basis now. I don’t always have the answers, but I’ve learned that the habit of asking and refining them creates new meaning by itself. Dealing with previously untouched taboos designs a whole new perspective and approach to navigating the emotional sphere at work with respect to human, organizational, and leadership needs. Without walking it, we will not know the territory itself, but we can create a map and start walking without the prior blinders into this rapidly changing habitat.
I don’t want to live in a world in which emotional conversations are perceived as a barrier to professionalism, but I’m not planning to quit anytime soon. And so, it leaves me with no choice but one: to engage in deep transformational change that embraces the humane, complex, colorfully emotional, and real.