How do I manage an employee who's highly emotional?

How we react to others' emotions at work is perhaps more important than the emotions themselves, and can have more impact on the outcome.

⏳ 4min read — enough time to drink 0.4 extra hot cortados ☕️
Author is therapist Graham Landi
Graham Landi,
Spill Therapist & Manager Trainer

Picture the scene.

You're upset about something and you're letting the person in front of you know.

You might be feeling vulnerable but perhaps you're showing a more powerful emotion, like anger. 

You may, despite your best efforts, be tearful. 

Your voice might be unsteady and your body shaking.

You've reached a point where you can no longer keep it in, so you're really letting it out.

Then, the person you're baring yourself in front of says,

"Don't be so emotional."

How do you feel? 

I have never once seen anyone experience a moment of catharsis through being criticised on the basis of their genuine emotion.

Rather than an annoyance that gets in the way of a well functioning organisation, emotions — in all of their myriad colours — are perfectly normal. What makes them unwieldy and difficult is not the emotion itself, but the fear of engagement with it.

What makes emotions unwieldy and difficult is not the emotion itself, but the fear of engagement with it.

Researching this piece I found it interesting that there are plenty of articles ready to offer tips and advice when it comes to managing employees that are "too emotional" or "emotionally needy", but that hardly any questioned the whole premise of the stated problem. 

Is it even possible to be "too emotional"? Or is this really a criticism levelled by people who are either unable to deal with emotion in themselves or feel the need to repress it?

One of the reasons that displays of emotion are hard to manage is because they operate in the grey space between the black and white of policy and procedure.

People react completely differently to the same stimuli and so more nuanced and specific action is required.

Trickier still is that the workplace offers up many opportunities to trigger negative emotional response.

Unmatched expectation, anxiety about our value and performance, overthinking, ambiguous communication, insufficient direction, unclear motivation, and an absence of work-life balance all make us emotional, and all of them can stem from or be amplified by situations at work.

Unmatched expectation, anxiety about our value and performance, overthinking, ambiguous communication, insufficient direction, unclear motivation, and an absence of work-life balance all make us emotional.

Harder still is that it's often tricky to identify precisely what people are really feeling.

As an example, the emotion that's generally pretty easy to spot, and one that causes a lot of trouble in the workplace, is anger. 

Anger is an emotion that tends to exacerbate conflict but it is much misunderstood. 

When someone is angry they are exhibiting a secondary emotion. That is to say there is some other emotion underneath that, for one reason or another, they are reluctant to show, probably because it makes them feel vulnerable.

Sadness, hurt, loss, disappointment, shame, jealousy and helplessness are all often successfully hidden behind anger, and the situations that have caused the emotional response are harder to resolve because you can't actually see what the real emotion is.

It's an unfortunate paradox that we often use anger when we are craving that someone understands us better and, in so doing, connects with us. But all the anger really achieves is immediate and often destructive disconnection.

So what can we do about it?

First, it's important to acknowledge that emotions themselves can never be wrong. It may be inappropriate to display them in the middle of a board meeting but there is nothing to be gained from being shamed for feeling them. 

Next, recognise that there is not necessarily a "fix" for how someone feels. It isn't always possible to change the situation that has caused the feeling, and so you need to be comfortable doing something that most of us find extremely hard: passive listening.

Being able to sit and listen to someone tell you how they feel without you talking, counter-arguing, or grasping for a solution is frequently what people need because there is enormous healing in simply being heard and acknowledged.

In a recent question from a Spill client I was asked about how it might be possible to resolve an impasse with a team member angry at changes to roles and responsibilities.

I suggested that they disconnect the work tasks from the emotion they'd triggered and talk about each separately. Emotions first.

The benefit of digging down into the emotion is that it is then possible to find out what's really going on. 

It seemed likely there were feelings of loss, and hurt and threat that, if identified and discussed, might show the pushback at role changes to be something of a "red herring".

Unacknowledged emotions build walls but, once validated, what had seemed to be an insurmountable problem can vanish as quickly as it appeared.

So, if you are ever tempted to describe someone in your teams as "too emotional", it's worth remembering that if you take the time to understand what they're feeling rather than seeing it as a frustrating complexity you'll probably solve problems a lot sooner, and a lot easier.

Spill's 5 tips for putting all that into practice...

⛑.  Acknowledge that work is an inherently emotional place.
The worst thing we can do is to try and avoid emotions at work altogether. Thank them for having the openness to bring it up.

💪.  Be clear about boundaries.
Showing emotion at work is necessary, but there are certain places where it's not appropriate (like on whole-company video calls).

🚧.  Separate the emotion from the situation that brought it about.
Explain that you want to discuss each of these two things in turn, separately. Conflating the two can lead to a misdiagnosis.

👀   Recognise the emotion(s) that the employee is feeling.
Ask them to expand, ask clarifying questions, listen, and replay back what you've heard to check you aren't misinterpreting them.

🗣.  When discussing the situation, ask 'why' at least three times.
The aim here is to dig down behind the emotion, to the 'problem behind the problem'. This is the nugget that can unlock progress.