How Being Radically Honest About Feelings Can Transform the Workplace

"When people become empowered to own their feelings and express them freely but responsibly, their lives can be transformed in incredible ways."

Getty Images
Getty Images

As a woman in the business world, for decades I was taught to conceal my emotions. I was conditioned to believe that business is a man’s world and that in order to get ahead and not be perceived as weak or unlikable, I should stuff my feelings down deep and keep my “game face” on.⁠

I played that game for years, and the results weren’t always pretty. I found that when I was angry, scared or sad and I tried to conceal those feelings, I became like a pressure cooker — all that stress, anxiety and tension built up until I eventually blew up. In my experience, we tend to hold it all in at work and then vent when we get home to the people we love the most.

But when I’m able to be honest and open about my emotions, I clear those blocked channels and allow joy and creativity to flow freely through me and into everything and everyone around me, both at the office and at home. I’m willing to bet the same is true for you, too!

I founded Poo~Pourri in 2007 and what started as a one-woman operation has grown to now include around 80 employees, more than 75% of whom are female including several executives. I’m proud to say that at my company we honor the natural feminine qualities that women bring to the table — empathy, teamwork, patience, expressiveness. Over this past year we’ve doubled down on that, bringing in coaches who specialize in radical honesty to help the entire team get more comfortable with expressing their emotions.

And it’s brought about significant positive shifts in the office: “I so appreciate the implementation of radical honesty at work because I think it keeps resentment from breeding,” says Poo~Pourri’s VP of creative Nicole Story. “People are comfortable expressing how they feel instead of holding things in.” 

Along with radical honesty comes an emphasis on taking radical responsibility for your own feelings. “It’s easy to look to other people for why you’re feeling angry or upset,” Nicole says. “Instead I’ve learned to go inside and figure out what’s going on with me that’s causing this situation to upset me? Nothing’s wrong with any way I might be feeling, but it just completely shifts the perspective of any work conflict and takes a lot of sting out of it.”

While I believe it’s 100% worth it, introducing this kind of radical change in an office isn’t easy. People are initially somewhat shocked to hear someone in the workplace say “I feel angry” or “I feel sad” because when we were kids and our parents or a teacher said that, it was often followed by punishment; we’ve essentially been taught to bottle all that up.

In a recent meeting with my executive team discussing a big new project, I said simply, “I feel scared.” When you make those kinds of statements, people’s initial instinct is often to think that they’re in trouble. They think, “Oh crap! I’ve done something wrong!” rather than realizing that you’re simply expressing a feeling. It’s easy for the person or people on the receiving end to assume that the feeling must be about them. So I’ll say, “I see in your face that you think this is about you, but I’m really just having an angry/scared/sad feeling right now.” Then I’ll explain why I’m feeling that way so we can go on to address whatever’s happening in the business that may have triggered it.

The purpose of this kind of radical honesty is to allow those emotions to run through our bodies so we can process them and move forward, removing any barriers keeping us from connecting with other people. When we’re concealing how we really feel from someone, it creates disconnection; our mind becomes fixated on what we’re hiding and prevents us from really listening or connecting to the person that’s in front of us. Integrating all these feelings that employees have long been told to leave at the door can truly be transformative, but this kind of radical honesty has to be practiced consciously and with intent. We’ve all likely experienced a situation where someone tells us something really harsh and then defends themselves by saying, “I’m just speaking my truth” or “I was just being honest.” Using radical honesty as a facade to dump on people isn’t healthy and will only lead to more tension; radical honesty has to be accompanied by enough conscious communication skills that we can convey those feelings to others in a fair and reasonable way. Radical responsibility is also vital here; everyone has to take responsibility for their own feelings. If you’re angry, it’s because you’re feeling angry, not because someone in the marketing department made you angry.

Our office is still new at this, and it’s a muscle that we have to keep stretching. When we first began this practice it created a bit of a ruffle because we tried to integrate it into the entire office too quickly. We quickly realized that for all staff to feel comfortable expressing their feelings, it had to trickle down from the top; a radical practice like this has to start with leadership. And we’re constantly looking for new resources to revolutionize communication at work: We’re now bringing in a certified Dare to Lead facilitator, trained by Brené Brown on her groundbreaking research on the role that courage, vulnerability and shame play in the workplace.

I believe this kind of radical honesty in the workplace has the power to create a ripple effect that will bring positive change not only to the office atmosphere and a company’s output, but to employees’ lives outside of work as well. When people become empowered to own their feelings and express them freely but responsibly, their lives can be transformed in incredible ways.

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