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Why feelings matter in the workplace

Why feelings matter in the workplace

It starts young. It includes a lecture. You probably even remember the day. You make your way to the breakfast table and boldly pronounce, “I don’t feel like going to school today!” What was the response? “I don’t care how you feel; you are going to school anyway.” And that is where it started. The call to duty is firmly established in your heart and mind. What you feel should not determine what you do. If it is right and good, do it!

In many cases this serves us well. We are repeatedly beneficiaries of people who do their duty regardless of how they feel. Thank you, veterans. Thank you, ER docs. Yet, in our celebration of duty, might we also be missing something that has a significant impact on our organizational effectiveness? Are we missing the fact that how we do what we do is actually inextricably connected to how we feel about it?

Periodically I have a chance to teach at the University of Missouri School of Business, and I can always tell there is a bit of a credibility gap when I am introduced as a pastor of a local church. No one says anything out loud, but the sentiment is definitely in the air. What valuable piece of information could a pastor share with students of business?

Once I start talking about team building and leadership development, much of the skepticism wanes — until I start talking about “feelings.” Then I’m back at square one. Most people who are “serious” about their business typically discount the importance of feelings. What does it matter how I feel? Let’s just get to work! Duty calls!

I understand the tension. And, yes, we are probably more ready to talk about our feelings in the pastor’s study than in the boardroom. But is that a good thing? Doesn’t the assumption that feelings have no place in the hard-nosed, numbers-driven world of business actually exacerbate the situation?

Kelly Wright is a trained counselor working on her doctorate. She has served for many years in the area of marriage and family therapy and recently opened her own practice in Columbia (Juniper Tree). But her clients are “normal” people, many of whom work for or own local businesses. She talks at length about the importance of working through emotions, both at home and in the workplace. “Most people have not been taught the needed skills to process emotions in a healthy way,” she says. “As a result, we react out of unprocessed emotions in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others. We must learn how to process our emotions effectively in order to manage them instead of them managing us.”

Perhaps the connection to business is still unclear. Let me give a couple of examples:

  • You spent considerable time working on a presentation. You were promised 15 minutes to make it to the leadership team, but another colleague took 10 minutes more than she was supposed to, so now you only get seven minutes to make your case. How do you feel about this? Does this adversely affect your relationship with your colleague or the leadership team?


  • A new customer is fidgety during your sales pitch. He won’t look you in the eye, and he checks his watch twice as you are making your closing comments. How do you feel about your chances of making the sale? How does that affect your close?


  • You overhear a conversation in the break room related to the meeting you just helped lead. It sounds negative. You don’t catch everything, but you were already a little unsettled about how well you did. How do you feel now? How does this affect the rest of your day?


Effective organizations give their team members the opportunity to process what just happened and how it made them feel. In fact, there is encouragement to do so. Questions such as, “Help me understand what you meant by that?” are commonplace. It could be as spontaneous as calling a timeout in the middle of a staff meeting to deal with an issue or something more proactive such as taking senior leaders on a retreat to process an especially difficult round of budget cuts.

Some might argue that they don’t have time for this touchy-feely stuff. The only real option we have is how and where — not if — people will process. And if we give people healthy and safe places to work through what they’re feeling, then it is much more likely the negative emotions won’t linger and sabotage future scenarios.

So, how do you feel now?


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