The Positive Impact of Emotions at Work
It took three meetings for Martha to feel comfortable enough to open up to me. Even then, I could sense her nervousness about being so honest.
I want to tell you about my experience managing Martha to illustrate why trust lies at the heart of an effective line management relationship.
Martha was an experienced solicitor who had recently returned to work from maternity leave. She had returned to a new team structure and a new line manager (me). Before going on maternity leave, Martha had been a strong and consistent performer – unflappable in the face of a challenging and sometimes aggressive business team; and flexible enough not to be fazed by new challenges.
On her return to work, Martha picked up where she left off. Against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty in the financial sector, Martha adapted quickly to the new team dynamic and showed her value in everything that she worked on.
But, there was something different about Martha.
At our first regular catch-up, it was as if she was holding something back. There was nervousness where previously there had been confidence. I replayed the meeting in my mind as I caught the train home that evening. Was it something that I had said? Perhaps Martha was just having a difficult day.
I resolved to be direct with Martha. So, the next day, I asked Martha to join me in a meeting room away from our open-plan office. On reflection, I could have set up the meeting a bit better – I should have anticipated how a non-scheduled “chat” with your new manager might have been construed. No surprises – Martha was tense when we sat down in the meeting room, despite my assurances that nothing was amiss. I started by sharing what I had sensed at our last meeting and ask Martha how she was finding the return to work.
At first, Martha was defensive. Everything was fine. A little challenging juggling work and home, but everything was fine. Again, something didn’t quite match up. Martha’s words didn’t match her body language and the emotions I was picking up – I felt tense with stiffness across my neck and shoulders. I reassured Martha that her performance at work was spot on and that I wanted to do everything I could to help her make her professional and personal life work.
There was a flicker in Martha’s eyes. But then her eyes looked towards the door. I knew our time was up. I didn’t want to push the line of inquiry. There was certainly part of me that worried as a male manager speaking with a maternity-returner, that I had started to stray into an HR ‘danger zone’. But my words had been genuine and I hoped Martha had believed me.
Our next catch-up took place a fortnight later. This time, it was different. Martha started speaking as we entered the room and only paused for breath about 10 minutes later. She was struggling to juggle the new demands in her home life with the challenges at work. Timing was a big issue. Rushing between child-care drop-off, commuting to work and pick-up every day was taking its toll physically and emotionally. So, we worked through some options together and came up with a plan that involved a different working pattern and a trial of working remotely a couple of days a week.
Martha started to relax. But there was more. After a deep breath, Martha said, “What I am going to say next you will probably count against me. I’ll probably be the first on the list for the next redundancy round.” After some gentle encouragement and reassurance, Martha told me that she didn’t want to try for promotion this year. She loved her job. But she had too many demands on her time to want to push herself with the extra effort required.
This was the real source of the tension.
I acknowledged what it must have taken for Martha to be so honest with me. Some of Martha’s colleagues were openly ambitious about promotion and, like many organisations, the opportunities for promotion were shrinking, not increasing. In this environment, I understood how Martha must have been feeling – the fear of being sidelined and, perhaps, losing her job.
But, Martha had felt she could trust me. I felt privileged. But I also was determined to reassure Martha that it was ok. I didn’t see the work that she was doing as in any way ‘treading water’. As a manager, and as an organisation, we valued Martha’s contribution. I could see that Martha was giving all that she could at this point in time. And this did not necessarily exclude Martha from being considered for promotion now or in the future.
My experience with Martha provided valuable insights.
From a manager’s perspective, I learnt to trust in my senses. Empathy is, quite rightly, a quality and skill that is encouraged in the workplace. For me, it was about seeing the world through Martha’s eyes. By being fully present and congruent with her in those meetings, I picked up the emotions and reflected them back to her. I was able to create a safe space where Martha could be honest. But, I acknowledge that there are many blockers that could get in the way. My point about being a male manager with a female employee may have resonated with you. It may sound daft to others, but I think it is a concern that many managers in my position have. By all means consult HR, peer managers or your own boss. But don’t suppress the emotions you have sensed.
Trust and openness is really important from a team member’s perspective. How can your manager help you if you don’t communicate fully? What you want from your career can change over time, as a result of external pressures or otherwise. It’s ok if you don’t want to push for partnership or, if you work in-house, directorship. If you are good at your job, you will be valued.
My work involves helping others to gain insights into their role and their behaviour in their organisation, to bring out the best in them. I see the impact from unwillingness and fear to recognise and acknowledge emotions (what lies under the surface), especially how they hinder managers and their team members from deepening their interpersonal working relationship. Too often, what is really going on gets obscured in the formal trappings of line management.