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Showing emotions at the workplace

In English


There is no workplace where emotions do not play a role. Emotions are engines that contain immense resources – and also obstacles. VTT and Skanska have had excellent results with practising emotional skills.

Many work communities struggle with how to help people cope with and enjoy their work more. Supervisors and executives are feverishly thinking of ways to make the work community productive. How can companies operate or even succeed despite the transformation of working life and the difficult global situation?

According to numerous studies, the answer lies in emotions. Positive emotions help us cope, find inspiration, be determined and overcome challenges in life. Negative emotions, on the other hand, serve as important warning signals, but also as motivators; for example, good stress can help us excel in important moments.

Now it’s time to let go of the old belief, according to which “emotions do not belong in the workplace” — emotions are an essential, perhaps even the most essential, part of being human, and they are present in the workplace, whether we want it or not.

Wash your hands if you feel a rush of emotions: two minutes are enough to calm down.

Merja Kalm, non-fiction writer and teacher, has worked in a wide range of work communities, with both children and adults. She points out that there is no such thing as a work community without emotions.

“Emotions and the ability to encounter others with the heart are our strengths. Workplaces must focus on thinking how to harness emotions for work, what kinds of supervisory and employee skills are needed and how to practise them,” Kalm says.

Emotions can be addressed in the work community by discussing success, failure or distress. There is no need to hide one’s emotions, but in a work community, people need to read the emotional atmosphere and express their emotions in a civilised manner.

Greet your colleagues and look them in the eye every day.

Thanking and encouraging others and giving constructive feedback are important. Dwelling on emotions or constantly snapping at people are not suitable behaviours in the workplace.

“We should know how to adjust our emotions to the situation at hand. Constantly overreacting can negatively impact the psychological safety of the working environment,” Kalm says.

Allowing different temperaments to express themselves in the workplace is a way to ensure that everyone is seen and heard as they are; some wear their heart on their sleeve while others prefer to keep their emotions to themselves. However, Kalm also points out that everyone has the right to expect good manners from supervisors and employees alike.

“Children and young people are often good at experiencing and expressing different emotions. Adults, on the other hand, should be good at emotional regulation, and unpleasant behaviour should not be tolerated in the workplace culture,” Kalm confirms.

Emotion coaching revolutionised well-being in the workplace

Researchers at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland know that if a workplace is emotionally functional, it has excellent opportunities for success.

“Emotional functionality plays an important role for the well-being of the work community, corporate leadership, innovation and employee commitment. More and more people choose their employer based on the emotional atmosphere,” says Kirsi Nuotto, HR Director at VTT.

Postpone decision making until you feel in control of your emotions.

Studies by VTT also demonstrate that emotional skills develop the work community and they must be practised. In the development project funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund, experts from Emergy taught emotional agency skills to VTT supervisors for eight months. Researchers at Aalto University and the University of Jyväskylä analysed the results.

“With the help of the experts, we created emotional maps that described, for example, joy, anger, fatigue, excitement, passion, etc. We learned to verbalise our own emotions and understand the emotions of others and their effects on the team or the work community,” Nuotto says.

The training helped the participants to listen to their colleagues and notice them also in ways other than through the substance of the work.

“I understood the importance of listening, for example, in a situation where someone is overwhelmed by emotion, and I learned how to approach these situations. This skill can, for example, help the work community manage a project in a difficult situation.

Start each Teams meeting by asking how the others in the meeting are doing.

The emotional atmosphere at VTT was measured before and after the training. There were several metrics, such as the feeling of psychological safety. The results were so revolutionary that the topic has roused international interest. Nuotto has been asked to share her experiences on the development of emotional agency in Europe and the United States.

“I was surprised that the emotional leadership training resulted in such a big positive change in our work community and workplace culture. People started to feel a lot better. Mental health problems are decreasing and sickness absences have reduced significantly,” says Nuotto, listing the benefits.

Thanks to the excellent experience, all VTT employees, not only supervisors, can now practise developing their emotional skills. Up to 700 VTT employees have completed the voluntary emotional agency training.

Tackling emotions through occupational safety

The construction company Skanska has been implementing the safety culture development project LIFE for over seven years. The starting point of the project was to empower people to take care of their own safety and the safety of others. This has also led to discussing emotions.

“Safety is an easy topic to discuss, because we all understand how important it is. Discussing safety together has enabled us to discuss even more difficult themes, and now we can also discuss emotions,” says Taru Lankinen, HSE Manager at Skanska.

Helena Pekkanen and Taru Lankinen.

Everyone at Skanska, including the executives, has participated in a separate LIFE workshop in their working time, and safety topics have also been discussed in smaller and larger groups led by Skanska’s employees and supervisors.

Turn your camera on in remote meetings.

The themes for the discussions come from daily work and occupational safety. They can discuss, for example, how rushing and pressure affect safety in general, what the obstacles to ensuring safety are and why it is difficult to intervene in practices that clearly reduce somebody’s occupational safety.

“Emotions are strongly involved in these discussions on values. Often, the things we perceive as obstacles are just fear, which is a strong emotion. This way, the emotion is automatically questioned and the employee may find the courage to verbalise the emotion,” says Helena Pekkanen, Manager for Occupational Wellbeing at Skanska.

Skanska has succeeded in discussing emotions at a deeper level sooner than expected. Employees have gained insight, and even the most critical opinions have changed. People do not see LIFE discussions as a waste of working time, but they have noticed how beneficial they are for the safety and smooth flow of work.

“Our organisational culture is open to discussions, and this has made our employees feel psychologically safe, which means they can even bring up difficult topics without fear of negative consequences. Daring to disagree is valuable,” Pekkanen points out.

See the good in yourself and in others.

Last year, workshop participants at Skanska’s well-being at work event discussed emotions openly. They talked about the situations in which frustration, worries, professional pride or gratitude surface in the workplace and how the things affecting these should be discussed.

“Seven years ago, discussing emotions directly would have been difficult in our company, but now it is possible and we are ready for it,” Taru Lankinen says.

Get to know your colleague – this helps also in remote work

The examples from Skanska and VTT demonstrate that understanding one’s own emotions and developing emotional leadership can make work communities more functional. But what can you do if you do not get along with a colleague despite highly developed emotional awareness?

Merja Kalm says that one can learn to understand one’s colleagues better by getting to know them and sometimes forgetting the roles in the workplace. When we let go of our occupational roles and discuss something other than work, we often learn to understand the other person better.

“The work community can be strengthened by a nice event, such as a sports afternoon or a concert, where the employees may bring their partners or even their whole family. It can be eye-opening to see that a colleague who is regarded as strict is also a gentle father, mother or spouse,” Kalm says.

If you have a tendency to talk a lot, a good way to involve others is to ask them what they think about the issue being discussed.

Knowing one’s colleagues is particularly important in workplaces where remote work is common. When interacting through a computer display, it is difficult to read the gestures, expressions and other nonverbal communication of someone you do not know.

“If we want to recognise emotions remotely, even to some extent, we must keep the cameras on. If you have a tendency to talk a lot, a good way to involve others is to ask them what they think about the issue being discussed. It helps if you already know some of the participants or have met them in person,” Kalm says.

VTT organised the emotional agency training remotely because it took place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each participant was paired with a randomly selected learning colleague with whom they practised the skills remotely. The remote training had unexpected benefits.

“In a way, the timing was perfect, because the training helped us maintain good contact with our personnel also during the lockdown when people were working remotely,” Nuotto says.

We started each session by asking everyone the question “How are you?”.

We started each session by asking everyone the question “How are you?”. This created an atmosphere in which it was easier to discuss, for example, how a certain task feels. VTT continues to apply the same practice in its remote meetings and face-to-face team meetings.

“We all have bad days, and it’s OK to say it aloud. For example, if you are feeling stressed, it is easier to say it when the meeting starts and you are asked how you’re doing and people are genuinely interested in hearing your response,” Nuotto explains.


Anatomy of emotions – how emotions are born

Emotions are psychological and physical spaces that help us survive different situations. Emotions help us function. For example, fear triggers the flight or fight response.

Emotions guide our behaviour and thinking. They affect, for example, what we pay attention to.

Emotions also regulate the extent of our attentiveness: at times of danger, we only focus on the cause of the danger, but when we are safe, we have time to think and reflect on matters.

“In working life, positive emotions can promote creative thinking, while feelings of fear and anxiety can reduce our ability to think,” says Vesa Putkinen, Brain Researcher.

Where are emotions born?

Emotions activate specific networks of regions in our brain. Feelings of pleasure increase the release of dopamine and opioids. However, the brain does not have, for example, a separate region dedicated to joy, but different emotions – such as joy or fear that we feel when watching films or listening to music – activate the same cerebral regions.

How do emotions affect us?

We often automatically label situations that invoke emotions as either negative or positive. The autonomic nervous system is activated and makes us follow the emotion, for example, to start to cry or laugh.

Can emotions be controlled?

We can control our emotional reactions up to a certain point, but it takes a lot of effort and activates the frontal lobe, which is responsible for executive and other high-level cognitive functions.

How is working life reflected in emotions?

According to surveys, people in general feel more positive than negative emotions in their lives. Positive emotions tend to increase in the evenings and on weekends, which suggests that working life may have more factors that provoke negative emotions than private life.

Do people have emotions all the time?

Emotions are not at the surface the whole time. For example, when an employee is highly focused and everything “is going smoothly”, they do not have strong emotions, perhaps apart from the pleasure of a smooth flow of work.