People are conditioned almost from infancy to think of feelings as bad and dangerous—enemies of good human relationships. People grow up afraid of feelings—their own and those of others around them—largely because they have heard from adults in their lives many messages like these:
• “Don’t ever let me hear you say you hate your baby brother.”
• “You shouldn’t feel discouraged about what happened.”
• “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
• “Don’t feel bad about it—things will be better tomorrow.”
• “There’s nothing at all to be afraid of.”
• “Keep a stiff upper lip.”
• “Swallow your pride.”
• “Watch your tongue, young lady.”
Later, we encounter additional reinforcement of the strong ban against expressing feelings—in the world of work, where we are warned that feelings simply do not belong. Somehow feelings and emotions are perceived as the antithesis of the rationality and shallowness required in relationships we want in the workplace. Leaving your worries at the doorstep and biting your tongue are the behaviors considered appropriate for people in organizations; people feel these behaviors will be valued and rewarded in the long run.
This pervasive and repressive group norm not only contributes heavily to poor psychological health; it is counter-productive to organizational effectiveness. As everyone knows very well, working with people inevitably generates feelings—of all kinds—ranging from mild to strong: irritation, anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt, fear, futility, despair, hate, bitterness, discouragement. While experiencing such feelings is not unhealthy, repressing them is. Continually bottling up your feelings is very definitely “hazardous to your health,” and can ultimately cause ulcers, headaches, heartburn, high blood pressure, spastic colon, or any number of other psychosomatic problems. Repressed feelings can also reduce your effectiveness by distracting you from your work.
Asked how he was able to stand the repressive climate of the school where he worked, a teacher once told me, “I use the three-martinis-before-dinner method like most of the teachers here.” A division sales manager in another organization where I was a consultant had this formula for survival: “I keep my opinions to myself.”
Contrary to the “feelings don’t belong here” belief, there is evidence that expressing feelings actually increases a group’s effectiveness and productivity. Openness in expressing feelings serves very much the same function for a group as pain does for one’s organism. Pain is a warning signal that something is wrong inside one’s body; feelings of group members are similar warning signals to leaders that something is wrong inside their group. Consequently, it pays the leader to foster a climate in which group members feel free to express their feelings.
Leaders should treat feelings as “friendly,” not dangerous. Feelings should be welcomed because they are cues and clues that some problem exists. With this attitude, leaders will not ignore the signals or, worse yet, roadblock the senders of such messages. Instead they should encourage people through Active Listening to go beyond the feelings and get to the underlying problem.