The Role of Emotion in a Successful Workplace

Welcome to 180 Circle, where we explore how human emotions can help workplaces and organizations succeed and thrive.

This premise might surprise you, especially if you have ever wished for a little less emotionality from employees or co-workers - their frustration with customers, mean-spirited gossip, or insistence on bringing a messy divorce to work with them. But the fact is that emotions play a huge role in driving behavior.

In the right environment, our emotional energies naturally tend to drive positive behaviors and results, to the benefit of our teams and organizations. When our emotions are blocked from constructive expression, the opposite occurs.

To illustrate the difference, let's look at two stories from early in my career.

The first story comes from a hospital, where I commented to a supervisor that I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the staff. She said, "I hire good people and get out of their way." You've probably heard this line before, stated as a no-brainer.

Obviously good people are good at their jobs! But I saw that she also meant something deeper: they were good because they were good to each other. In the environment she created, their working relationships allowed for trust and vulnerability.

People felt safe to interact authentically with each other and their manager, even about mistakes or shortcomings, so their emotional energy flowed into the work in a positive way.

The second story comes from a polytrauma center where I worked with war veterans. Soon after I started, one of the more talented and creative occupational therapists gave me a warning. "If you make suggestions," he said , ''you better duck 'cause you never know when the bullets will start flying."

I soon learned that he was not being overly dramatic. Instead of working together to solve problems, managers and employees pointed fingers as the default option. Within a year a number of highly skilled providers left to work in less toxic environments. And this was an organization devoted to healing!

The opportunities for changing the lives of the veterans was enormous, but the people working in the center did not feel safe expressing their ideas or their creative instincts. So their sympathies, talents, and concern for the veterans could never find their full expression.


As I advanced in my career as a psychologist, I understood the lesson behind both these stories: when people operate in an environment that makes them comfortable to communicate about their concerns, self-doubts and actions without fear of judgment, they can overcome personal obstacles and maximize their potential. You can remember this equation easily with two words: emotional safety.

There is a sound basis for the role of emotional safety in human psychology. We are wired for trust as a fundamental prerequisite for relating to each other, and trust requires some level of vulnerability.

If we don't feel safe to express ourselves honestly, relationships with others will never fully develop, our talents will never be realized. The emotional energy that would naturally drive positive behavior is captive rather than active.

The worker who lost his concern for safety had lost his wife, which crushed him emotionally, but rather than appear weak and share what had occurred, he bucked it up instead, walking around in a fog. Similar stories kept emerging.

Finally Terry and John realized that people at the mine rarely talked about what was going on either in their lives or their workplace. That included slip-ups with safety, and soon no one talked about that either.

Ultimately every accident or near miss was related to people not feeling it was safe to reveal anything that involved emotions, or that placed them at risk of appearing vulnerable. Hence they did not ask questions when they did not understand a safety procedure, or voice concerns regarding safety or ideas or improving it.

The two professors first obtained buy-in from managers to open up channels for employees to voice their feelings about what was going on in both their lives and work.

When the workers had an opportunity to get past bravado and discuss their emotions honestly, everything changed. People who needed help with something were not ostracized, they were encouraged. Not only did accidents at the mine dwindle to near zero, but so did absentee rates and union complaints.

It sounds like magic, but it's just sound psychology: people who feel emotionally connected at their workplace look out for each other and perform better. Those who don't, don't.


This story started me talking to friends and colleagues, and very quickly I found that everybody has a story related to feeling emotionally safe at work. People can remember the exact moment when they realized their workplace was not emotionally safe.

A recruiter who wanted to help a job applicant but felt she would be reprimanded. A magazine writer whose boss became so enraged that he spit at her.

A supervisor who didn't offer constructive feedback to a valuable employee.

  • - something that could really help the employee's career at the company

  • - because he knew he would get defensive push back rather than appreciation.

This doesn't include the countless number of people who come to work every day with their guard up, wanting to fly under the radar, monitoring what they do and say, hoping they will not be treated in a degrading manner simply because of their sex, race, religious beliefs, culture, or sexual orientation.

How many people do you know who might be stifling their enthusiasm or creativity, feeling a need to keep part of themselves closeted away out of fear of lack of acceptance? How many times have you personally felt emotionally unsafe at work, to the point that you kept ideas or other contributions to yourself?

As some of the world's most successful organizations have demonstrated,

it doesn't have to be this way. It's common to think that work should be hard, that we have to suck it up when we don't like the job situation. But that's agreeing to failure. In my interactions with more than 11,000 patient and clients, I have seen over and over that emotions play a huge role in organization success.

There are steps every company can take to evolve the working environment into one where emotions and excellence are aligned.In these workplaces, high productivity and high functioning include trust and vulnerability. These empowering environments exist in thousands of organizations already, so the opportunity is there for every organization.