Did you ever wonder when you "throw something away" where "away" is? Follow, in your mind, a cardboard box or a soda can from wastebasket to recycle bin to landfill. Does it disintegrate quickly or stay in its original state for long periods of time?
Now think about an emotion. What happens if you discard it? Where does it go?
Emotions like cardboard and cans have a life cycle. They can be fleeting or hang around forever. It is a true leadership responsibility to be able to gauge emotions and find the best balance between overtly showing them and intentionally stuffing them.
Ours is a culture of polarities. There are rock throwing, foot stamping zealots who use words and images to inflame, while on the other side are those who shut the emotional levers and are logical and rational all the time.
In the workplace, leaders who show awareness of emotions, who model right use of emotions, do a favor to a society which has not mastered the art and craft of balanced emotional output.
Think about the patterns of behavior you were taught as a child. Did you come from an environment where you learned it is best to be calm, cool, and collected? Were you taught that "big boys don't cry"? Did you learn that angry outbursts got you what you wanted, or the converse, that showing anger meant getting shut away in your room?
Mastering emotions is a major aspect of high level leadership development. We do not live with logic alone. No matter how appealing it looks to leave our emotions at the door when we think things through, they are there anyway.
In this era with vast amounts of research about how the brain operates it is vital to model and help others learn the twin tasks of self awareness and self regulation. It is the skill with which we regulate emotions that allows us to achieve a wide range of flexible and adaptive behavior to solve complex problems effectively.
Unexpressed emotions do not dissolve. They sit, like discarded soda cans, rusting in the sun. They do not go away. They do not transform if left unattended. They come out in unexpected, inappropriate ways that often have nothing to do with the present situation.
They infect the workplace as well as the home, pollutants that cause us to think about an environment being toxic and unmanageable.
Take Jan for example. She was Director of Operations at a large hotel. When logic was needed t o resolve an issue, like, should there be a new sink put in one of the bathrooms, she was first rate. The right porcelain container was measured, ordered, and fit perfectly where it belonged.
Yet, when Jan had to work with her peers, with other directors in the organization, she was a petty child always needing to be the center of attention. The hungry baby part of her would show up through nasty, underhanded comments that created an environment of splitting, deception, and mistrust.
Jan was a technical success, yet an emotion failure. Her pot stirring caused so much dissension that the senior leadership team of the organization was splintered and contentious. The workplace conflict was toxic.
Just like a sick physical body that cannot fight off unhealthy bacteria, the organization was suffering from a lack of emotional health. The system was suffering.
When emotions are stuffed, when technical prowess is valued over personal relationships, when a pretend lid is put on how people handle their feelings it gets ugly. Finally, the stress of the underground emotional strains started to bubble up. Jan was seen by several colleagues "putting up her middle finger in back of a colleague with a vehemence that was above and beyond discussing new carpeting in the meeting rooms."
Jan had grown up in a home where emotions were unacceptable. She had been physically beaten whenever she disagreed with her father as her mother stood by incapable of stopping the strong man from hurting his daughter.
This inability to express emotions overtly in a healthy manner created a tone and texture of sabotaging emotional reactions throughout her life. She was always talking about people to others behind closed doors.
She was like a robot when emotional issues were addressed. She would stare blankly, unable to acknowledge her behavior. When asked about "the finger" incident, she claimed she was just rubbing her face. No one bought it, yet there was no way to help her access the angry, fear based emotions that sat, like rusting soda cans in the landfill of her past.
Jan was eventually terminated. However, it took time and patience to recover from the damage of her splitting, polluting behavior. This story is not unusual. It is sadly, typical of workplace relationship conflict in all industries, in all organizations, large and small.
When emotions from childhood are packed down, not permitted to bubble up from the depths of ourselves, when we are not allowed to feel the feelings of hurt, disappointment, despair, and doubt, when they are not recycled in a healthy way, they show up at work and cause damage.
The complex question is both how is it possible to ferret out the toxins, and even better how do those with patterns of behavior that destroy employee morale get the help they need?
These are the human resource and leadership issues on the table today. They cause billions of dollars in lost revenue and limited productivity. These patterns from the past sit in emotionally toxic landfills and are as much a problem in our world as the oil sitting in ugly gobs in the marshes of Louisiana.