How is Your Workplace Limiting Your Emotional Freedom?

Note: In my last post, I Want to Know More About You, I referenced research that looked at the ways in which emotional repression is built into our social landscape, especially affecting men. So I decided to reprise the article below because the more I experience, the more emotional suppression I see in every type of workplace. It’s woven into the systems that dominate work. Often it is subtle; emotional norms are embedded in behavioral norms that send clear signals – this is what’s acceptable here.  
Emotional freedom is not counter to optimal performance and productivity – it is central to it. This is one of the beliefs that keeps paternalism and cronyism alive.  I’m not talking about the kind of  emotional “acting out,” that leads to aggression, bullying, gossip and deceit, but honest and balanced emotional self-expression.  
Without it, humans suffer, relationships become commodities, creativity is stifled and resentment erodes contribution. Too often emotional repression is accomplished by willing self-repression. While this is understandable when someone believes (often rightly) that their job is at stake (especially when exacerbated by tight labor markets) emotional suppression comes at a high cost – to our bodies, our psyches and our organizations. Whether you’re discovering this post for the first time, or giving it a re-read, I hope you will find it worthwhile. 
We read a great deal about employee engagement these days.   Great talent is supposedly in short supply. Many organizations are looking to attract and retain the best people, especially in anticipation of economic challenges that are the new normal. 
We scrutinize what constitutes great leadership.  Phrases like “Culture eats strategy for lunch” (or is it breakfast?) are becoming the new organizational memes.  Yet, we still can’t seem to get some basics of creating healthy organizations right.
One fundamental problem is that most organizations don’t see themselves as dynamic systems.   Most strategies and remedies are still based on parts thinking.  While some organizations acknowledge their internal and external connectedness, they still largely function along segregated lines.
According to Peter Senge, author of the seminal book on organizational systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline, “Organizations are living phenomena in a very real sense and they were appreciated in that spirit for a very long time. It was only a couple of hundred years ago that our view of organizations—and particularly business organizations—really began to change. When we started to harness the power of machines in the early years of the industrial era, gradually we started to see more and more of life as machine-like. It leads us to see everything, including ourselves, as nothing but an elaborate set of mechanisms. This way of thinking has developed insidiously over a few hundred years, to the point where we no longer realize how captive we are to it.”
Few would disagree that cultural forces are instrumental to shaping organizational life, but it’s challenging to understand the impact of culture on daily human experience.   After all, organizational culture is the aggregate of shared thinking, beliefs and values and it is – dynamic.   That dynamic is most powerfully influenced by the vision and practices of organizational leadership. Because emotional contagion is real, the thoughts, feelings and actions of organizational leaders are constantly reinforcing or shifting the dynamics of an organization’s direction.

It’s Viral

John Wenger, author of the excellent blog, Quantum Shifting, writes, “We are so infected by the culture of our organizations that we lose awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will say, “What water? In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert upon us.”
The constant demands organizational life makes on our emotional psyches are both overt and obscure.  In the blizzard of tasks that string a work day together, many people are simply reacting to events as they are presented.  But within the undercurrents of communication, culture is influencing feelings that are shaping behavior.
As a result, each organization develops an emotional landscape. Conveyed by the formal and informal norms of every organization, department, team and workplace relationship, what is emotionally acceptable to express and what is taboo is quickly learned.
While organizational structure and processes are always impelling feeling and action, employees are often not aware of how. Commonly at the root of conflicts, internal and external, are the underlying forces of these systemic influences.   Because we’re not looking at the macro picture to understand the micro dynamics, we miss the real drivers of behavioral outcomes.
The past fifteen years have brought a new understanding of the brain and especially of experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Simply put, we now know that brains are socially interdependent. They are in a sense – systems within systems.  In fact, the emerging field of “organizational cognitive neuroscience” (OCN) is the cognitive neuroscientific study of organizational behavior.  OCN lets us start to understand the relationship between our organizational behavior and our brains.

How Organizational Demands Impact What We Feel

Emotional prohibition and freedom within organizations is determined by a multiplicity of forces. How individuals will be emotionally affected by those forces will depend on their needs, beliefs and values.   While some people can tolerate and adjust in restrictive emotional environments, most will wither and often resist.  In most cases, this is occurring unconsciously. Because much of the emotional adaptation takes place outside of awareness, dysfunction is often the result. Often organizations try to “remedy” problems by identifying the “problem employees” and not looking at the systems influencing cultural behaviors.
From an individual, group and organizational perspective, it is vitally important to understand the forces can impede or encourage emotional freedom.
Some organizational forces that inhibit emotional expression:

  • Dishonesty. The singular value that most of our clients identify as being critical to effective performance is honesty. That’s why the rampant dishonesty of many workplaces has such a deleterious effect on employee participation and vital workplace relationships.  Nearly every organization has its “truth” norms and every employee has to crack the code of what is allowed. Often this occurs unintentionally. Even if senior leadership intends and professes their allegiance to transparency, an employee’s relationship with a manager can set the tone that overrides willingness to honesty share thoughts and feelings.  At the macro level the mismatch between what an organization says and what it does also determines “safety levels” for self-expression. Sadly, many employees say it is simply “too risky” to be honest at work.
  • Lack of Trust The correlate to honesty.  Overall institutional trust levels had slipped in public opinion polls even prior to the 2008 recession. Since then, they’ve dipped even further.  Charles Green, author of the Trusted Advisor (book and blog) points out that trust is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need first to identify the trust realm; are we talking about personal trust, or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?” Trust is after all an idea about a set of behaviors that either reinforce our sense of comfort and safety or alert our brains that the “risk” is too high.  Lack of trust influences what we feel and the actions we take. It is the cornerstone of decision-making. Low trust produces feelings of anxiety, apprehension and fear.
  • Coercive Power.  The nature of organizational hierarchy and power has got significant attention lately.  I’ve written in this blog about the slow death of authoritarian leadership and the need for greater critical thinking abilities to challenge the imposed status quo. But most institutions are still dominated by central authority whose very nature (and “success”) is predicated on coercing behaviors that conform to the will of its senior leadership. In their fascinating book, “The Starfish and the Spider,” authors Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom write about the difficulties of the Spanish Army in defeating the Apache Tribes of Southwest America. Turns out the Apache had no centralized chief, only what was called a Nant’an (Geronimo was a Nant’an) a spiritual and cultural leader with no coercive power.  In fact, Geronimo did not, and could not, tell the tribes to fight. He could only lead by example. If the tribal members thought it was a good idea, they would follow. The phrase “you should” doesn’t even exist in the Apache language.  Certainly centralized power has its place in organizing some human activities. But its top-down approach is being seriously examined in light of global interconnectedness and instant communication.  One question central to evaluating coercive power arrangements must focus on the effect coercion has on emotional expression.
  • Peer Pressure & Bullyism.  Findings in neuroscience show that the brain is constantly on alert for what it perceived as threat and reward.  While most people understand that peer pressure has real consequences, most workers don’t yet comprehend its brain-altering impact. Workplace behaviors that range from subtle coercion (often couched in humor) to outright bullying can place people in emotionally defensive positions.   Because many people within the workplace haven’t developed their collaborative and conflict management skills, communication, especially when differences occur, can resort to dominant groups (or individuals) imposing their will on others.  Autonomy is not simply a nice idea, but an essential domain of healthy brain functioning.
  • Stress.  Most workplaces are pressure cookers. Overwork is epidemic. Sixty hour work weeks are common, often spoken about with pride and admiration.  No matter what “strategies” people use, lack of rest, movement, diversity of activity and poor nutrition will result in allostatic load. The term describes the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress which can cause cumulative strain and damage the body in the long run. Under these conditions, it’s not uncommon for the brain to be activated in a low-level fight or flight mode. Unresolved emotional issues are easy to trigger and re-trigger under these circumstances. Impatience can trigger frustration which in turn can trigger anger. Physical and mental exhaustion sets the stage for these emotions to overwhelm personal performance and interpersonal relations.
  • Morals & Ethics. Our personal beliefs and values play a major role in how we experience and act in the workplace. The disconnect between organizational practices, senior leadership and individual performance is often very high. In a 2010 Maritz poll, only 11% of American employees strongly agreed that their managers showed consistency between their words and their actions. Only 7% thought their senior leaders and co-workers looked out for their best interests.  The poll also found that about 20% of respondents didn’t believe that their company’s leader was completely honest and ethical.  Of those who responded this way, only 3% said they looked forward to coming to work. The natural emotional response under these circumstances is cynicism, mistrust, anxiety, resentment and anger.

An employees’ real “engagement” is not possible without the emotional resonance that comes from a belief in the integrity of an organization and its’ leaders.  There will always be emotional spillover from an individual’s personal needs and feelings into organizational culture. Self-development and greater skill in self-management can go a long way to helping that stay balanced. However, nothing can influence individual performance and interpersonal relationships as powerfully as institutional culture.
I’m sure you heard the unattractive colloquialism  “A fish rots from the head down.”  The phrase underscores the importance of leadership, at least from the perspective of centralized authority. Whether controlling or open, leaders and the organizational cultures they shape set the tone for emotional expression.  And the people will follow.
Maybe it’s time to study Geronimo in business schools! 
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related articles: Why Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years!, Why Do So Many People Still Believe that Self-Development is Therapy? Collaboration: The Essential Emotions


  1. Anne Brink says:

    Hello Louise. This post hits home quite a bit and I like your reporting on things. I noticed I was left with a bit of a downer feeling. Like, boy, with all that we are missing and need to develop in ourselves right now is there a way to find a workplace that actually is satisfying. I’ll take on that that’s my reaction to the article based on my circumstances right now but I’m wondering also, if you could do a post on where its going well. Any examples of our progress on this topic? I actually co-lead a group called Authentic Portland that is about building our ability to know ourselves and express ourselves better in our full range of emotions and I know people are hungry for this everywhere in our lives. I do have a business leader here in Portland who is doing great things that allow for people being more real at work.

    • Anne,
      Glad you wrote this. It “hit home” for me. You are inspiring me to spend some time focusing more on what is working. We have some wonderful experiences working with many individuals and groups within mainstream workplaces and I need to share more of that. I would love to know more about Authentic Portland (a great city).
      People ARE hungry for this, I agree. That’s my experience. Unfortunately consultants like us are often hired to “problem solve.” Often what we are asked to do is “remedial” work. This is still typical of many organizational mindsets. I wish there were more clients who were willing to invest in development and growth rather than putting out fires. It is wonderful to hear that you’re working with enlightened, like-minded folks in being about to bring out people’s strengths in the workplace. Until most business mindsets shift from “training” people to supporting them in their development and discovery, the pace of change moves slowly.
      There is however, a lot of suffering and confusion in most workplaces. As I have written numerous times, we’re still struggling with a very unhealthy, in some cases, dysfunctional legacy of decades of human behavioral regimentation based on economic drivers that no longer serve who and where we are – and want to be. I see glimmers of insight – and change – but the process is slow. I see many employees that deeply desire fulfillment and genuine collaboration in their workplace – but feel the forces of resistant cultures work against them. As you know change is challenging and people need their workplace culture to support their change efforts over a long period of time.
      Thanks for the comment – and the inspiration,

      • Anne Brink says:

        Thanks for your reply Louise.
        Authentic Portland is modeled off of Authentic World in San Francisco. We’re focused more on individuals rather than organizations. The coaches out of SanFrancisco are now actually doing some things with Ken Wilburs organization Integral Center. They’re primary focus in on relationship as a path to personal growth and practice a technique called circling which is like a meditation in that it focuses on developing your awareness in the moment of how you are responding to others. Its a great practice. Authentic Portland hasn’t quite developed that sophisticated of a community just yet but we have 5 leaders who are working on it.
        I am also working with a few people in Portland on building a community of organizations that are interested in exploring how to create workplaces that are enlivening and foster ease and creativity. (I’m calling these organizations Juicy – a polarizing word that seems to spark conversation.) I’m starting to build relationships with CEO’s who are already good at this with the hopes of using their success to attract those who want to learn more into a community. I have it that the conversation needs to become more common place and the examples of it working need to be spread more widely. Its the …put your attention on that which you want philosophy instead of that which you don’t want. I’m not sure how it will work but I’ve had some success in meeting some pretty extraordinary leaders. We have Fortune Magazines top small business to work for in Portland (Ruby Receptionists) and they are doing some amazing things. It would be so great for you to occasionally interject examples of extraordinary organizations so that we all get examples more widely spread of how it could look. You have a much broader reach than I do right now. It would be of great service to us all. Thanks for what you’re doing.

        • Hi Anne
          Thanks so much for the info on your work with Authentic Portland. I’ve very interested and ask that you keep me in the loop. I’d like to know more about your work with Ruby Receptionists – so send me anything I might be able to use in a future post on extraordinary organizations. I’d appreciate that.
          Yes, I agree we need to get those examples out there. The mainstream benchmarks for identifying “best practices” and “best places to work” are usually based solely on economics only models.
          PS Please send me any links or info on circling as well. Relationship is the ultimate practice for personal growth.

  2. Chris says:

    Hi Louise. I too, found myself admiring your depth of insight.
    But I’m with Anne, about the downer feeling. I experienced it just trying to imagine the shift that would have to take place in so many different personality types across the board of all labor markets. And how to achieve the goal of populating a workplace with fair minded, emotionally intelligent leadership that also possesses knowledge and skills for the actual offering of a business .. or at least communicating about that.
    The culture of a dysfunctional workplace and even behaviors exhibited during the recession have caused long lasting impact on the attitudes of individuals. well after
    Bad workplaces, seem to me, to be insidious by nature.. And although I think a good culture could be just as insidious ..
    I think we have a long way to go before we see measurable changes that the decisions of leadership,believing their actions are justified and only accountable to the bottom line and the stockholder care one iota about an employees emotional freedoms.

    • Hi Chris,
      Yes, facing the realities of many of the problems we have to face today can be daunting. We are living in a time of great transition which is why developing our resiliency (and supporting those around us to develop it) is critical. But I’m optimistic because on a micro level, we’re having this conversation. People like you and me, Anne and Dorothy, recognize what others perhaps can only feel and not articulate, and are creating the capacity to support others in their development. Yes, change can seem very slow but I believe in tipping points, and I think in many areas of change, they have arrived.
      This inspires me and so many smart, caring people I know in real – and online life. I feel it coming more into focus every day – even if just a bit. You’re right – the recession (mostly created by greed and a drive for power) has had a devastating impact – economically, morally, socially and emotionally. It is naive of organizations and their leaders to expect workers to bounce back and rise to the occasion as if nothing has happened. As I’ve often written there is a lack of basic psychological knowledge in most people – and certainly in organizational leaders and consequently this knowledge is rarely applied to help support people to “bounce back.” Most people have enormous depths of resiliency (I am amazed by it regularly) but organizations and leaders need to support people in reinforcing those natural strengths – not challenging them again and again. But the recession is that it revealed the house of cards played by thoughtlessness and hubris. It uncovered flawed choices and thinking that we have an opportunity to learn from – as hard as that is.
      So I think when we try to “imagine the shift that has to take place” as you said, we have to start within. This has to be our wellspring. And beyond ourselves to continue to see and seek out all the wisdom and goodness that is evolving.
      Carl Jung said “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”
      Thanks again for your comment and PS check out the next post – I promise – no downer!

  3. Louise – this post certainly resonated. I coach a lot of people who would regularly cite your main criteria as a reasons for wanting to leave an organisation. In many cases they are so interwoven to become blurred. I am also seeing on psychometric tests an increasing number of people scoring high on sections involving being guarded, cautious , sceptical and not expecting support from managers or peers. I don’t know if anyone else has observed this as a trend.
    Another frustration is against this backdrop of cultural challenges is an inconsistent application of HR policies based on favouritism or expediency.

    • Dorothy,
      I’m very glad you shared your experience in response to this post. While I believe it’s common that consultants and coaches are (sadly) hearing these issues from clients, what’s more concerning is how the testing you cite is picking up the emotional currents that anticipate and reflect expectations in the workforce. This, I believe, is a serious problem facing business (among other sectors) that has deep roots in the culture. Religion, politics, economic forces and schemes and I think the sheer pace of life and change are all contributors.
      Another frustration is against this backdrop of cultural challenges is an inconsistent application of HR policies based on favouritism or expediency.
      I share this perception too. This, of course, reinforces perceptions (often accurate) of a lack of equity and fairness; so the “cautionary” notes being picked up in testing are the logical protectiveness (mostly happening unconsciously) of a culture that sees the unequal distribution of justice and fairness.
      Thanks for picking up on this,

  4. Anne Brink says:

    Hello Louise.
    I just came back to this post to see if you had replied. Here is a link to an article on circling from the Integral Center in Boulder, Co.
    I am working on starting an audio blog telling stories about the journeys of people and organizations in creating fulfilling workplaces. I’ll send you my first post when it’s completed. It will be about Rose City Mortgage, an organization that amazes me and completely expanded my view of what’s possible in the work place.

    • Hi Anne
      Thanks for checking back and adding the link – for some reason have had difficult this am opening it – but look forward to it later.
      I’m very interested in your project and look forward to hearing about Rose City. I appreciate whatever you send my way.

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