Emotional Avoidance in the Workplace

I once had someone close to me say, “I don’t do emotions.” At the time, I couldn’t help but laugh because of the sheer hilariocity of the situation. But as I step away and look at society, I began to notice how so much our lives are built around this concept of withholding your emotions. We, as a society, have developed social guidelines and negative stigmas about the expression of emotions and what we deem “acceptable.” Just look at some of these examples:

  • Wait three days before calling someone you’re interested in
  • Keep your personal and professional life separate
  • Real men don’t cry
  • Emotions make you weak

Just as our personal lives get carried over into our professional lives, we carry these constrictions into our everyday lives. While some may argue that emotional constriction is done for the benefit of productivity, it nevertheless creates our social construct.

But are emotions really that hard to deal with that our society is built around burying and shoving them down?

Why We Don’t “Do Emotions”

Take a moment to think about the benefits of numbness. What happens when you don’t have to deal with your emotions? We’ve already mentioned productivity, but dive deeper. If you can boil it down to a simple, singular thing, what would that be?

For me, I believe that people do this ultimately for safety. People want to feel safe and emotions has a tendency to put us in a place of discomfort, which sets off fear and ultimately, danger. As a result of this, I find that a majority of people who don’t address their emotions are highly task-driven people. They want tangible things so they don’t have to get into that ambiguous realm of emotions, which is scary and requires us to actually do something — whether it be dealing with how we impact others, how they impact us, or dealing with our own emotions. Putting aside our emotions to focus on tasks makes things easier and safer.

Impacts of Emotional Avoidance

Let’s look at businesses for example. When something goes wrong, the first thing examined is typically the process. And what follows process examination? More processes — whether it be an assessment on how to minimize future mistakes or disciplinary processes. But does re-examining a process do anything to Sally, whose work is piling up because she’s been stressed about having to move her father into a nursing home? Does it make her worries go away if you simply assume she’s unqualified, slacking, or doesn’t know how to manage her time efficiently and enroll her in a time management course?

No, it doesn’t. Sadly, though, this is what most organizations do, rather than getting to the root cause of conflict. You can set as many deadlines, goals, enroll people in as many time management courses as possible, but if the emotional aspects of the situation aren’t being addressed, nothing will change in the long run.

Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have processes in place. They are there for a reason and helps create structure. However, it is important that blanketed procedures are not the only things we focus on. By not addressing the human component, we’re putting a band aid over an already infected wound. Yes, that may stop new bacteria from entering, but it doesn’t stop the old infection from spreading.

In the end, this results to high turnovers, low retention, lack of employee engagement, and overall, a negative workplace environment.  If you’re struggling with any of these issues in your own organization, reach out to our dedicated team of organizational development experts. With over 30 years of organizational development experience, let us help you unlock the true potential of your organization.