What is the most harmful and toxic emotion in the workplace? No, it’s not fear… Or frustration… Or anger… Or envy… Or shame… These are all good candidates, but there is an emotion that is much worse.
It’s actually something you wouldn’t expect. It is a very common emotion, but we’re not usually aware of it. And it has DEVASTATING effects on your workplace climate.
Let me share a story that illustrates this. Sam is working as a project manager and he told me this recently:
“I can’t stand the situation at my work anymore. I’m responsible for this project that’s worth MILLIONS to our company. I actually take care of pretty much the whole project.
I work my a** off. I talk with the client every single day. Then this salesman from our company comes there, talks with the client and agrees that the project goes on. HE then gets a bonus for that, just for coming in and agreeing that we continue the project that I’m already working on. But that’s not even the worst thing – even though his bonus is much bigger than mine.
The worst thing is that the biggest bonus goes to our BOSS! And this pisses me off so much. Why? Because he’s not really doing anything! He’s just sitting there, pretending to be important.
You see, I don’t need any guidance from my boss. I’m a true professional and I know my stuff. Every time my boss interferes, things just get more complicated. He doesn’t even know what it takes to run this project. He doesn’t understand the pressure I’m in. You won’t believe me but he just asked me if I can take on ANOTHER project! Even though I’m already on the verge of burnout!
Clearly, he has no clue of realities… When I try to tell him this and ask for more resources to the project, he looks at me like I’m stupid or something. He just doesn’t understand. I don’t think he WANTS to understand.
I’ve been working on this project for years, and now that it’s finally paying off, all the benefits go to the people that have joined the company only recently. Mostly to new bosses we just hired because we “needed more resources to management”. Bullsh*t! Those new bossed do nothing and get a HUGE reward for the work WE project managers do. Actually, we have to work like hell just to make sure we have enough money to pay the bosses… For what?
And how am I feeling about this all? To be honest, my work is making me SICK. When I go to work, I feel like throwing up. I’ve just updated my CV. I need to find a better place to work.”
Stories like this are unfortunately very common in many organizations. 89% of people report that they have been treated unfairly in their work. People feel so bad in their work that they have to leave. In order to understand these stories, it’s useful to see the common pattern in these and understand the role of a specific emotion involved.
So what is it that makes you feel sick at your workplace?
There’s some interesting research that sheds light on what’s happening here. Think about these studies:
- When people were playing a game in a group and one person was breaking the rules ruthlessly, there were expressions of disgust on their faces.
- When studying how our brains react to unfairness, the researchers found that when people feel something is UNFAIR, the areas in our brain related to the emotion of disgust become more active.
In other words, when you experience something as UNFAIR, you’re likely to feel DISGUSTED.
That’s quite amazing! Because disgust is originally an emotion that has a purpose of protecting you from things that could be harmful to you. Like bacteria and diseases. That’s why things like rotten food, crawling insects, wounds, or dirty toilets can make you feel disgusted.
The message of disgust is: “This is harmful to me. Keep it away!” And your whole body acts accordingly; you turn your face and body away, you take distance, your wrinkle your nose, squeeze your eyes, and maybe even make a sound and gesture that refers to throwing up: “Yuck!”
Amazingly this same emotion gets activated when you feel you’re being treated unfairly at your work. It is sometimes called moral disgust. Maybe you use another expression to describe your emotion, like you feel resentment or contempt or are just pissed off or you just say your work makes you sick. But the message behind the emotion is the same: “This person/job/situation is BAD for me. I need to get rid of it!”
Now, why is this emotion so harmful in your workplace? Because it has a HUGE impact on you. Of course, when you’re feeling sick about your work, it destroys your motivation and makes you want to avoid your work. But there are other consequences, also. When you’re feeling disgusted, it makes you more likely to lie and cheat. It makes you stricter and more judgemental. Research shows e.g. that when feeling disgusted, you’re more likely to give harder punishments.
Need I say more? It’s obvious that experiences of unfairness bring your workplace’s emotional climate – and productivity – down fast.
There’s one more important thing you should know. Disgust cannot be suppressed. Actually, if you just keep it in and bite your tongue and try to suppress it, the effects of disgust GET WORSE. The only way to make the effects milder is to admit, express, and deal with the emotion.
So how do you deal with disgust?
Here are two tips. One for yourself and one for your organization:
🗸 Face your emotions fully. Just let the disgust come, feel it in your body, see the thoughts that come with it. Breath. Just breath. Let the emotion come, welcome it. Listen to it. Observe it. Accept it. Let it be. And let it go when it’s ready. This will help you get some distance to the emotion and will make its effects milder.
🗸 Have an authentic discussion around emotions and values at your work. Talk about how you feel about working in this company. And talk about your values – what are the TRUE values driving the behaviors in your workplace? What is considered fair? What is considered unfair? Getting these often hidden topics out in the air will build the basis for a healthy emotional climate. When there are experiences of unfairness, it’s best to acknowledge them, name them, and talk about them. This is the only way these toxic emotions go away. Once they’ve been heard, they’ve done their job.
One final thought. We often think that everybody should be treated equally. But this is a bit misleading. Because people don’t really want equality. They want FAIRNESS. Everybody should be treated fairly. This photo illustrates the idea:
This is a helpful thing to remember. The most crucial keys for dealing with experiences of unfairness are to acknowledge those experiences and have clarity on values. TRUE values.
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Originally published at www.jarkkorantanen.com