How much emotion is too much emotion at work?

Brad Lande-Shannon, “making” company culture.
Brad Lande-Shannon, “making” company culture.
Image: Gary He/Live Grey
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Outside the recent Life@Work Company Culture Conference in Brooklyn, a young hipster walking by eyed an event banner near the door, and said to his companion, “They’re making culture in there.” His friend snickered.

I understood the cynicism. How can you engineer a corporate culture, as Live Grey, the consulting company behind Life@Work, and so many coaching companies like it, promise?

But the more I listened to the many conversations about culture at the unusually immersive conference, the more I realized that the skeptic’s view may be the wrong way to look at the issue. On the whole, letting company culture develop organically, hoping that firms will get diversity or gender equity or humane work conditions right, hasn’t been much of a successful experiment. Maybe we should welcome the movement to make work more just and human, even if it means looking past the kumbayas of the movement’s vernacular.

Brad Lande-Shannon, Live Grey’s CEO, believes that one of most fundamental ways to build a work culture is to foster trust and connection among colleagues. These are not empty words for him. In one of the most memorable moments at the conference, he spoke about a major event in his life—the experience of adopting a baby boy with his husband—and why he contacted his team, in tears of joy and anxiety, in the middle of the intense day his son was born.

On behalf of skeptics everywhere, Quartz caught up with Lande-Shannon after the conference and asked him to further explain his thoughts on showing emotions and sharing personal issues in the workplace. The Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did you share the most euphoric, but terrifying moment of your life with your work colleagues?

First, I think it’s important to say that at Live Grey, we have the usual tactical meetings, but we also dedicate about 45 minutes every week to a meeting that is just a connection practice. We ask people to check in, typically on Mondays. Each person says, “If you really knew me, you’d know that….,” and you get two or three minutes to share something as simple as “This is what I did this weekend,” or more. As a leader, I often go first. Most people are not going to go there until people are modeling it.

So, because we do that, when my husband and I made the choice to adopt, that came up in those meetings. Anyone who has been through the adoption process, not only same-sex couples, knows it comes with a lot of challenges. I had exposed some of those early on, so there was a building over time, and I think that’s how trust starts to form.

The day my son was born, when I was actually at the hospital on the other side of the country, I had gone through one of the most emotional, euphoric, but also hardest experiences of my life, and it would have felt strange for me not to share that with my team at that point. Certainly it was not the same conversation I would have had with my parents, or my dear, dear friends, but I felt safe enough and it felt important for me to reach out to them.

At one point, the birth father, the birth mother, and my husband and I had this moment when the child was being handed over to us. We held each other and cried and we were all feeling joy, but also sadness, fear, and loss. I remember being in the hospital with my husband holding our child, and me talking and texting with my team and just wanting to take a moment to share the whole experience with them while I was in it, as opposed to wrapping a bow around it at the end and sending a picture. That wouldn’t feel authentic given the philosophy and culture we work within.

Isn’t there a risk of being too emotional at work?

The message for me isn’t that you barf up your emotional trauma or challenges just anywhere. I don’t think that’s skillful or showing a lot of emotional intelligence. You need to gauge: At what level can I share here? At some work places, it’s not safe. If you’re sharing what’s wrong in an environment or in a relationship at work where you don’t have that trust built up, or if that person isn’t really able to listen and have time to absorb what you’re saying, then I think it can be potentially dangerous. The disclosure can be weaponized. So I think it takes an emotional intelligence to know that.

That’s when I suggest people ask how you become a place of refuge. Try to turn it around a little bit.

What do you mean by “become a place of refuge”?

There are often people in our lives and workplaces who people go to whether they have an HR title or not. They are people who you feel more comfortable sharing your truth with, and that can be about your frustration related to a project or something going on in your personal life. I think it’s something to learn from as leaders. To make yourself a place of refuge is to be the place where people can come and share what’s really going on with them.

If their child is not doing well in school and they’re getting phone calls, it’s going to impact work, and in my opinion it’s better to know that and have the context. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a conversation about performance if performance is being impacted, but you’re not ignoring it and you’re able to take that information on and include that perspective in the conversation.

The other thing to know about vulnerability is that we’re all emotional creatures, it’s the nature of humanity, we feel things, and hopefully the human experience has taught you that sometimes the moment you share something, as you’re sharing it, it dissolves. It goes away. It’s not true anymore or it doesn’t feel real anymore. It takes a certain kind of leader to actually be able to have the space to listen and also have the space to let go of it and not hold someone to that emotion.

Why bother with this emotional work at all? Why not expect professionalism at work and leave the emotional displays at home?

In order to move faster at a company, in order to solve that next problem or think creatively about something, we need to have space in our mind. The sharing of our emotions, feeling vulnerable, relieves those blocks. It allows us to perform at a different level, because we don’t have the cognitive burden of all these other things going on that we’re trying to compartmentalize or keep separate.

But the world of work can be cruel. There are layoffs, recessions, people get fired for all kinds of reasons. Shouldn’t self-protection be a consideration?

We just have to honor that some people are at a different stage of their own emotional development, or their needs are different, and in some ways having a more compartmentalized view of work, for some people, that works. At different times of our life, we have a different relationship to work, and I don’t think I’m making any one way “wrong.” But I do think there is a urgent need for many people to feel more connected, and not being emotionally engaged in your work, for many people, creates stagnation. It ultimately doesn’t serve a lot of people.

People are unconscious. We get a bit robotic. We wake up, we go through our routine, and we go to work and do the thing we’re supposed to do, but we’re not really alive. We’re not connected. This is more like a call to say that there’s an invitation to wake up and have a different relationship to work — if that speaks to you.

I’ll also say that there’s a lot happening in our world right now: natural disasters, hurricanes, fires, mass shootings, the election results, the political climate. Many people show up at work and either they have sidebar conversations, or nobody is actually talking about these things. Maybe no one is pausing and saying, “Wow, what’s happening? How can we be here for each other?” And some folks are dramatically impacted—or it could be their family member at best friend who is impacted—and not everyone has a space to share that.

You’re spending a lot of your time at work. While these things are going on, it seems like it’s almost doing a disservice to humanity, and to each other, to not provide some kind of platform where people can talk about these things together and process them in some small way. Just create the literal space in your office and in the calendar to hold something as simple as a “listening session,” and you’ll start to generate real relationships internally, and also a little bit of goodwill between employees and companies. It may also be helpful to have someone there who knows how to facilitate a discussion, because complex issues come up.

Do you believe that connected workplaces might actually protect people from the kinds of discrimination and harassment that’s so often in the news, especially right now?

Yes, I believe encouraging more humanity at work could reduce the problems we’re seeing with sexual harassment in the workplace and the culture of silence around it. Watching my Facebook feed fill up with #MeToo’s is heartbreaking. How many of these situations occurred to victims while they were at work? I have no doubt, a lot.

One variable that could help create change here is quite simple: Connect more genuinely with the people on your teams more often. We have found in our culture-development work with clients that vulnerability and trust are inextricably linked. When people feel safe enough to share different aspects of their identity or elements of their life with people at work, they learn how to have more honest conversations. More direct and honest conversations could diminish instances of sexual harassment because people will start seeing one another for our full humanity, and stop objectifying their coworkers.

And as we gain more comfort in speaking our truth at work, it will become easier to speak up to HR or leadership when boundaries are crossed or trust is broken. This could have the power to avoid situations where issues build and build over time, while people are silent, or they do speak up but are not heard.