Work has never been easy. Before the pandemic knocked us sideways, we were plenty busy managing stress, fear and frustration in the workplace. But the pandemic has taken these so-called “negative emotions” and doubled their potency.
Our work lives have been upended. Some of us have lost our jobs; others have been forced to go virtual where the boundaries between work and life have all but disappeared. A recent study from the Boston University School of Public Health found that the prevalence of depression symptoms in Americans is more than three times higher during the pandemic.
Anyone who has lived through 2020 understands the immense physical, mental and emotional burden of this moment and the toll that it has taken on the workplace. One question worth asking is how as business leaders and professionals can we learn from the past year so that 2021 is more successful and productive?
Most of the factors that made 2020 so emotionally turbulent will still be present in the new year. COVID fatigue, worker burnout and emotional overwhelm aren’t going anywhere. That’s why as a leadership coach, I’ve spent time with my clients recently reminding them that negative emotions play a vital role in making us higher-performing people and professionals. They aren’t something to be shunned or ignored.
In fact, the more we shun and ignore them, the more they fester and the more dysfunctional our work and our teams become. Negative emotions actually have a positive biological purpose: We experience them so that we can recognize threats in our environment and be prepared and motivated to manage them.
So one answer for how to have a more productive, successful 2021 isn’t to ignore or eliminate COVID overwhelm, but instead to harness it to create better performance, clearer thinking and positive change in our colleagues and ourselves.
Here are three ways to start leveraging the positive side of negative emotions.
1. ACKNOWLEDGE THE EMOTION
We often suppress negative emotions or react rashly to them. We spiral or lash out. We yell or retreat into darkness. In all of these cases, it’s not the feeling itself that’s bad, but rather the response. That is, the deliberate ignoring of the emotion or the impulsive projection of it.
The quicker you can recognize the emotion you are experiencing and understand why you feel it, the easier it is to manage the emotion beneficially. The easiest way to do this is to stop, take a breath and say to yourself (either out loud or in your head), ‘I am feeling [X emotion] because of [Y situation]’, and then gently ask yourself, ‘why might that be?’ as many times as you need to get to the root of the feeling.
As business leaders, we can be real with our colleagues — both in sharing our own feelings and in acknowledging theirs. Instead of making every 1:1 about business targets and deliverables, spend some time talking about feelings, their root source and how we can address those feelings, individually and collectively, to leverage them for good.
2. SAY NO TO RUMINATION
The key to managing emotions is balance. We don’t want to continually suppress our feelings. If we do, they’ll fester. We also don’t want to give them free reign. The more we dwell on negative emotions and what caused them, the more likely it is we will go into rumination — the tendency to keep thinking, replaying or obsessing over negative emotional situations and experiences.
We all know how this goes. Rumination fuels rumination like oxygen fuels fire. The more we do it, the longer the fire rages and the worse we feel. When we ruminate we lose sight of what’s important and become more indecisive in taking action. To not go down this path, I find it helpful to engage in an activity that gets you out of your mind and into the world.
Exercise with music, watch a stand-up comedy show, play a game of chess or engage in a dialogue with someone you trust on how you are feeling. And encourage your colleagues to do the same. That’s part of what it means to be a good leader during the pandemic and bring the best out of your team.
3. USE EMOTIONS AS A SOURCE OF INFORMATION
Emotions are a source of information. They show up to tell you something, and it’s in your best interest to listen. The biological reason for anger, for example, is to motivate you to act. It pushes you to give attention to situations, occurrences or people who have made you feel compromised and consider how to restore the peace.
Anxiousness helps you to focus, solve problems quickly and warns you of possible threats. Fear protects you from danger. It triggers a physiological response that makes you ready to act in the face of danger. Sadness improves your judgement, memory and motivation. Guilt forces you to realign with your moral compass. Jealousy reminds you of what you want and motivates you to try harder to achieve it. Frustration urges you to take a break, get some perspective and re-energize before continuing on your pursuit of a certain goal.
This list goes on. It’s all supported by scientific research. If you want to dive deeper into the literature of the positive side of negative emotions, I would encourage you to start with this book by Georgetown University’s W. Gerrod Parrott. In the meantime, keep in mind that emotions like stress, fear and frustration aren’t here to vex you. They are markers for what you should pay attention to and what you should act on in business and in life.
Amelia Kruse is a Certified Executive Coach based in New York and Sydney working with creative executives and entrepreneurs globally.