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WISE WEDNESDAY: The Fear of Feelings at Work

It’s clear which emotions are acceptable at work: Happiness and enthusiasm are welcomed, but sadness and fear are usually awkward and taboo. That’s likely why workers tend to cry in the bathroom but smile at their desks.

While emotions such as fear or sadness are perceived negatively by companies, they can actually be helpful for work, according to Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. As part of her work, she consults with companies on how to best motivate their employees and create a culture that makes it easier for all parties to reach their goals. It sounds simple enough, but it’s pretty difficult in practice.

I recently spoke with David about her research and her book, Emotional Agility, which looks at how companies and employees can acknowledge uncomfortable experiences and react appropriately. David argues that the suppression of negative emotions and thoughts at work can lead to harmful results, so much so that some business school professors have taken to recommending that companies perform “pre mortems” before starting big projects to identify reservations that team members are too reluctant to speak up about. Often, a can-do attitude can mask existing problems. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows...

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