Difficult thoughts and feelings, it’s often assumed, have no place at work, but maybe it’s time for that received wisdom to be mothballed?

Difficult thoughts and feelings only become a problem if they crowd out the mental space you need to gain some perspective on them and figure out why they’re arising.

A good proportion of executives, for example, suffer recurrent emotional patterns at work: fear of rejection or failure, bruised feelings at perceived slights, and jealousy of other’s success, to name but a few. The fact that they’re recurrent suggests that they’re commanding attention they may not deserve.

To break out of the cycle, leadership and change consultant Christina Congleton suggest four successive steps:

  1. If you recurrently feel and think the same way, start by recognising that you have a pattern. Track it back to other earlier scenarios where you’ve felt the same way. This is the first step to gaining perspective.
  2. Label your feelings and thoughts. Instead of “My colleague is making me angry,” try “I’m having the thought that my co-worker is wrong and my response is to feel anger.” Again, a little space is opened up for reappraisal – your colleague may not be entirely wrong and your anger may not be the only way you can feel.
  3. Don’t try to suppress your difficult thoughts and feelings. That just makes them more insistent. Accept them: they’re signalling that something important is at stake and you need to take productive action. This may mean, for example, refraining from your angry outburst pattern and using the energy of the anger to make a clear request (like asking a colleague to move quickly on a pressing issue).
  4. Once you’ve gained perspective on your feelings and thoughts, bring them into line with your core values. Focus on what Congleton calls “workability”: will your response assist you and your organisation over both the short- and long-term to realise what’s most valuable to you?

Suppressing thoughts and feelings is doomed. Practise emotional agility instead.

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