Written by Jason Sirois

I was recently invited to a dinner party with friends where the topic of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace came up. One of the hosts, a leader in his company, shared that the company was in the middle of a DEI staff survey. He went on to say that even though he thought it was important work, the truth was that he didn’t want to know about his staff’s feelings. As a DEI practitioner, I didn’t find it to be a particularly novel take, but my curiosity was piqued. I asked him why, and he explained that feelings are “so annoying;” he just wants people to do their jobs. I responded, “‘Annoying’ sounds like a feeling.” Everyone laughed. I took note.

In the United States, we are socialized to believe that people can and should compartmentalize their feelings and separate them from their work. This is especially true for leaders; we expect leaders to be objective and make decisions free of emotion. What this conversation with my friend highlighted is that no one “compartmentalizes” their feelings at work; we ALL have feelings all the time. The difference is in how we are allowed to express those feelings. Leaders can express their feelings through directives and policies while their staff are left expressing their feelings at “the watercooler,” often running the risk of being labeled “too sensitive” and worse, facing retribution.

I reached out to Cardozie Jones, friend and CEO of True North EDI, to get his take on feelings and leadership in the workplace, both as someone who leads conversations on DEI and as a leader himself. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Jason Sirois (JS): What do you think about what my friend said? Does it surprise you?

Cardozie Jones (CJ): In my experience with leaders and, as a leader of a company myself, I certainly recognize the “virtue” of separating feelings from work. More honestly, there’s an inclination to be perceived as being able to separate feelings from work. But we actually can’t separate or sever our emotions from anything we do, so that tells me that somehow we’ve inherited these values around what I’d label as deception, and connect it to the idea of being a good leader.

JS: I appreciate the idea of deception. Daniel Goleman names awareness as the first domain of emotional intelligence in his book of the same name. If we don’t name the emotion, we deceive ourselves into believing that the directives and policies that can come as a result of emotion are just us “taking action,” but we aren’t considering the impact of those emotionally charged decisions on the rest of the staff.

CJ: And I would take that another step; once you have named the emotion, what are you going to do with it? There is something really powerful about not only naming the emotion for yourself, but sharing our emotions. We can’t be held accountable for what we don’t share. But that kind of vulnerability can feel counterintuitive to what we’ve inherited around leadership; if I share my feelings, people might think I have made an emotional decision, but if I don’t share it, I can make an emotional decision without anyone ever knowing it, including me.

JS: I also think there is a generational divide in how we think we’re supposed to show up in the workplace. I recently worked with a leader who self-identified as part of the baby boomer generation who was having a difficult time engaging with a new employee from the gen-z generation. The leader explained, “Sometimes you just have to come to work and do your job. It’s so frustrating that they keep talking about their feelings.” This leader thought she kept her feelings separate from her work, but she felt frustrated, which led her to gaslight the new employee and use her positional power to ignore the employee’s requests for support. That employee ended up leaving the organization shortly after.

CJ: So there’s a real cost. In this case, the tension between generations (which has always existed) and a misalignment of values as it relates to engaging emotion, can cost us the spirit, the drive, the advocacy, the innovation of younger generations. Inversely, it can cost us institutional knowledge, wisdom, and experience of people in an older age group. So the question is what do we need to either create or surrender to ensure that we remain whole— meaning the people on the front end, the people on the back end, and everyone in between are all present and feel valued.

JS: That’s such an important question. It makes me think of our beliefs around individualism. I have found it useful to unpack the myth of individualism with leaders. There are few people, if any, who can claim that they have accomplished something in the United States without the support of other people, institutions, or systems. But if I believe I have made it to my leadership position all by myself, I’m likely to expect others to do the same. And my belief in individualism renders co-creation inefficient, and inefficiency is an obstacle to profit and progress.

CJ: Right; because so-called inefficiency slows down the processes, which is not a bad thing, but in capitalism, anything that postpones profit and progress is an inherent negative. But to your point, co-creation requires partnership and partnerships require emotional awareness if they’re going to be successful.

JS: So why should a leader, let’s say, whose job is to increase profits and ensure progress, even consider co-creation?

CJ: I care less about convincing the leaders who only care about profit to be co-creators and more about working with leaders who actually want to lead equitable and inclusive professional communities. To be clear, I don’t believe there is always an inherent malice involved on the part of leaders for whom profit and/or progress is a priority, but there are those who want to interrogate the tension that exists at the center of capitalism and equity and be designers of innovative and humane practices that come from that interrogation. This is where coaching really can help. We can make things visible. We can name things. We can come up with ways to address that thing we want to shift.

JS: I love that. I once worked with a leader who was committed to equity but took away the anonymous question platform his company used during quarterly full staff meetings. He said he wanted to give staff an opportunity “to develop the courage” to ask him questions directly during meetings, but when he was confronted with push back from staff and we looked deeper at the decision to eliminate a platform that provided a more equitable way to ask questions, we found that his discomfort with the questions that were being asked was at the root of the decision to eliminate the platform.

CJ: This is paternalism 101. Here we have a leader who, because he couldn’t honestly name his own emotional discomfort, created a policy that would spare him from it, all under the guise of wanting to engender courage. 

JS: Something I’ve been exploring with executive coaching clients is the question, “What’s in it for me?” What is the benefit(s) for this leader if he grapples with his discomfort? Humans are wired for self-preservation, so my theory is that if I can define the benefits of dismantling systems of privilege and oppression for myself, I will tie my self-preservation to the creation of equitable and just systems. And as a result, when things get tough or uncomfortable, I am less likely to walk away.

CJ: A central tenet of True North EDI’s work is interdependence. It’s believing I am connected to you and that our fates are bound together. This belief requires me to give as much as I take. I believe we all can win in a community that centers interdependence.

JS: And for some leaders, believing in interdependence requires a reordering of priorities and values, which can be difficult. This makes me think of some of the ways leaders can engage with their feelings more openly. I have found that the leaders I work with benefit from having someone like a coach to talk about feelings without the fear of having their leadership ability questioned. 

CJ: Yes; a place where leaders can be honest and clumsy. A coach can hold space for messiness. That’s a real gift. It doesn’t negate the need for vulnerability with other stakeholders, but it can serve as a rehearsal for it.

JS: Another strategy for embracing emotions is to define what it means when someone is “too sensitive” or “too emotional.” When leaders begin to define what they mean by “too sensitive,” they often uncover racial, gender and other biases; who gets to express certain feelings and who doesn’t? 

CJ: The irony is that the reason you would even be in that discussion about “too sensitive” would be due to a sensitivity on the part of the leader. You think someone else is being too sensitive, but that’s coming from a sensitivity of yours.

JS: Yes! How do we flip this critique to consider that maybe I, the leader, am being “too sensitive.” 

CJ: Perhaps the word “too” is the issue. I’m being sensitive; you’re being sensitive; those are just truthful statements. The word “too” creates the indictment. And of course, when you’re in power you can indict people far more easily than they can you.

JS: I think one of the things True North does so well is helping leaders develop an inquiry approach–the ability to ask questions and examine what’s below the surface. In the case of the leader who took away the anonymous question platform, he missed the opportunity to be curious about why staff felt they needed to ask him questions anonymously. What he might have discovered is a lack of trust between him and the staff, which could have led to an honest reflection on ways to develop that trust. 

CJ: I can think of a time when I received criticism as a leader; in the moment, I simply said, “This is really difficult to hear” and what I got in return was this beautiful empathy from the group. What came from that was not only compassion and empathy for me, but new ideas for how we as a collective could maintain the meaningfulness of feedback while acknowledging all of our humanity inclusive of mine. As a result, we developed a way to gather feedback before meetings so I could have time to digest it before responding. The same process was created in the other direction for times when I needed to share feedback. It was a process born from compassion and needs and I think everyone was better for it. 

JS: So, rather than feeling like you may have undermined your leadership, your sharing of emotion led to a new process that allowed everyone to show up for each other more fully. I love that! What’s your invitation to leaders who are reading this right now? 

CJ: My invitation is for leaders to consider the impact of inadvertently or intentionally enacting their emotions through their decisions and policies. A useful albeit vulnerable exercise would be to ask those you feel you can trust to give you honest feedback to the question: have you observed me make organizational decisions based on my emotions? You might be surprised at what you hear if you create an authentic non-defensive space for it. One thing I hope isn’t lost here is that we’re not suggesting the elimination of emotion-based decisions nor are we suggesting they are inherently negative; but emotional intelligence means knowing when our emotions are at play, and running a self-diagnostic to assess how decisions, regardless of where they come from, align with our values. What about you; what’s your invitation?

JS: My invitation to leaders is to really interrogate their beliefs about emotions and leadership. If they believe they can’t express or even have emotions at work, I invite them to recalibrate their relationship with emotions, both theirs and others’, until they see the feeling and expression of emotions as an opportunity rather than a liability. 

CJ: There are so many more options available once we acknowledge that connectedness of what we once believed were separate. Once something is visible, we have the ability to decide if we want to surrender, keep, or transform it.

Always Upward