A week ago, much of the world had the chance to witness someone act in a way that brought about very real and heartfelt backlash. People willingly and openly expressed varying opinions as to what was right or wrong. And very unfortunately, this became what is and probably will continue to be a lasting memory of this event and the individuals involved.
From any vantage point witnessing a regrettable action becomes a cringe worthy happening. And rather than feeling very disassociated from seeing or hearing this, I wonder who among us hasn’t been ‘there’? Who has not, in the course of living, done something at some time that we regretted? Perhaps, it was something we said or some physical act we did. Regardless, our action left us with wishing we could have handled ‘it’ differently and avoided the resulting and very unintended consequences.
Regret is defined as a feeling of sadness, repentance or disappointment over something that has happened or been done. One place that I have experienced and continue to see this occur is within organizations. There, things can be and are done by someone that quickly replaces an initial sense of satisfaction with true regret. And rarely is a workplace act of a physical nature. It’s more often something said … or not said … that brings about an undesirable reaction or action.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a leadership consultant who sees ‘work as hard … which is why it’s called ‘work’. Every day, we face challenges that range from solving difficult technical issues and making hard choices between competing priorities. We need to know what we should delegate and decide on new solution to old problems. And we are expected to do all of this while staying calm, cool and collected. Riegel sees the need for us to maintain a professional demeanor in the face of daily workplace stress can feel like it’s own full-time job or what she calls ‘emotional labor’. This is where we actively manage our feelings and the expression of those feelings. Doing so enables us to have professionally appropriate interactions with customers, clients, co-workers, and higher-ups. It includes both the expression of emotions and the suppression of emotions that are felt but cannot be expressed.’
As Riegel sees this, the expectation to consistently express positive emotions at work can feel difficult. But not managing to suppress negative emotions can be damaging — especially when these emotions trickle out in other ways. And when they do ooze out, they often lead to behaviors that may feel good in the moment as we release some pent-up negativity. However, doing so tends to cause a “shame hangover” the next day. Here are some examples:
- Giving someone the silent treatment, hoping they’ll take the initiative and ask you, “Hey, did I do something wrong?”
- Making cruel comments about someone’s appearance.
- Telling someone “I need to talk to you” and then letting them worry until the meeting.
- Speaking negatively about someone behind one’s back (a boss, colleague, or client).
- Playing devil’s advocate just because you enjoy it.
- Taking credit for someone else’s idea.
- Telling someone why the idea she’s really excited about won’t work, without offering helpful insights.
- Saying “I told you so” (or its equivalent).
- Sharing what you really wanted to say in the meeting after the actual meeting.
- Asking lots of people for their opinions until you get the opinion you want.
These behaviors are both credibility and careers killers. So, what do you do if you recognize one or more of these in yourself? Here are some strategies:
- Become emotionally fluent
Emotional labor can feel compounded without having the words to describe what feeling you’re working to express or suppress. Start naming what you feel and you experience an increase in your emotional fluency.
- Find a healthy emotional outlet
When you don’t have a safe or appropriate place to express how you feel, your emotions are likely to come out in destructive ways — to you and to others. Find a person with whom you can share openly and honestly. Find an activity that allows you to release your emotion, whether it’s yoga or a book club. Do something that lets you express yourself directly, honestly, and regularly.
Make a deal with your future self
Badmouthing your boss might feel terrific today — but it won’t tomorrow. Playing devil’s advocate with your colleague might feel like a victory today — but it won’t tomorrow. Before you engage in any behavior that might give you instant emotional relief, think about your last “shame hangover”. Think about how you’d prefer to feel tomorrow. Your future self will thank you for considering her emotional needs.
Emotional labor is work, indeed. And it’s worth doing the work to make sure the behaviors that emerge from managing emotions are ones that boost rather than break a career. Writer Omar Itani has been quoted as saying ‘I cannot regret something that has taught me valuable and worthwhile lessons in life”. And further, author Dan Pink who has recently written a book on the topic of regret defines courage as looking regret in the eye and doing something about it. Personally, I like it!
And one more thing. Just in case you hunger for more, Inc. published an article this week that sees the apology that a certain actor issued following a much regretted behavior as being a ‘Master Class in Emotional Intelligence’. Regardless of one’s position, if he/she has made a major mistake, the related apology serves as a case study with invaluable takeaways.’ It’s definitely an interesting interpretation and good read and maybe helps to put this to bed.