Editor's Choice

No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work

February 22, 2019


Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy have written a book that can help us build a more emotionally mature workplace, and maybe even a kinder world.

No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy, Portfolio, 304 pages, Hardcover, February 2019, ISBN 9780525533832

One major theme that has emerged in business books over the past few years is the importance of our humanity in the workplace, and how valuable “soft skills” are in a world increasingly deluged in both “hard” data, and in automation that is getting better than us at more technical tasks. Traits like empathy, communication, and the ability to work together are at a premium. You have most likely read up on, or at least heard of, the importance of emotional intelligence at work, and how it may even be a better predictor of success than IQ.

Now, it is important to pause before going any further to point out that, while it has a warm and fuzzy feeling of morality to it, so-called emotional intelligence can just as easily be used to manipulate people toward nefarious ends and to understand and work better together with them. And I wrote “so-called” emotional intelligence because the phrase itself is a bit of a misnomer because it describes a set of skills rather than an innate personality trait or cognitive ability. And that is important because it means that it can be taught, learned, and improved. And Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, in their new book No Hard Feelings, are here to tell you that:


Real achievement at work requires going one step beyond emotional intelligence; you need to learn to be reasonably emotional.


You need to learn to be reasonably emotional, and their book was written to help you do just that. To do so, they have come up with “Seven New Rules of Emotion at Work,” which are:

  1. Be less passionate about your job.
  2. Inspire yourself.
  3. Emotion is part of the equation.
  4. Psychological safety first.
  5. Your feelings aren’t facts.
  6. Emotional culture cascades from you.
  7. Be selectively vulnerable.

Each of those rules corresponds to a chapter in the book, covering Health, Motivation, Decision Making, Teams, Communication, Culture, and Leadership. As you probably noticed, it begins with the individual and broadens throughout the book to encompass the organizational, and the core that holds it all together is the emotional. It is unsaid, but often assumed, that we should check our feelings at the door when we enter work, that we need to act rationally, and be self-interested, efficient, and productive versions of the mythical homo economicus. But we all know that’s not what happens. As a union rep told me at a previous job, the only thing that rivals work in making people irrational and neurotic is family. Why do we pretend it to be anything but? As Fosslien and West Duffy write:


The forces that compel us to ignore our emotions at work must be combatted. […] By ignoring our feelings at work, we overlook important data and risk making preventable mistakes.


It is time to embrace emotion at work, and to “stop feeling bad about feeling bad” at work. I mean, hopefully you don’t feel bad all the time at work (and if you do, it may be a sign you need to look for new work), but one reality of the modern workplace is that:


Our jobs can put a lot of pressure on us to radiate happiness and positivity. The values of many companies explicitly encourage employees to be positive.


Being more personally self-accepting of negative emotions is not only healthy, but it also allows us to let go of them, and impels us to work on changing whatever is causing them. Fighting or attempting to suppress emotions is the one surefire way to ensure they’ll simmer.

And this is true in organizations as well as individuals. If you don’t allow employees to process their negative emotions—their anger, sadness, anxiety—they will likely end up projecting them on coworkers or, perhaps even worse, on customers. So, counterintuitively, the most successful strategy for ensuring a positive workplace is to not insist on employees remaining positive. That is not to say that you should encourage or exemplify open venting or airing of such negative emotions. As the authors remind us, “you need to learn to be reasonably emotional.” But the cause of negative emotions at work is as often real problems that need to be addressed as they are negative attitudes, and leaders should use the presence of those emotions to surface and address problems before they grow into crises.

One of the great things about the book is that it doesn’t just discuss these topics, but teaches us strategies to manage them. They explain how, as individuals, we can reframe our anxiety into excitement, or worry as motivation, and find confidants we can share our challenges and frustrations with so that we have an ally in conquering them. They explain how, as a leader, we can lessen the base level of anxiety in our teams and help build confidence by giving people clear direction about what is expected of them and allowing them to focus on what they are expected to accomplish, which is not as universally practiced as you might imagine. In fact:


Research by Berkeley professor Morten Hansen shows that a quarter of us are often unable to focus because of a lack of direction from our bosses.


In addition to providing clarity, the authors stress the importance of establishing emotion norms and an emotional culture through social signals and repeated microactions—the antithesis of microaggressions—at work to give people a sense of belonging and let them know how much you value them. They discuss how leaders can be open without sharing too much, how to show some emotion while “still prioritizing emotional stability and psychological safety,” and how you can avoid turning a bad day for you personally into a burden on others.

All of that is especially important for those higher up in an organization, because their influence makes them the most emotionally contagious, but this pertains to all of us, because “Leadership is a skill, not a role.”


It’s not always easy to accept and discuss emotion at work. But when you do, you’ll find that feelings stop getting in the way and instead become signposts to guide you on your career path.


It is said we shouldn’t let emotions cloud our judgment, but we should, in fact, be using our emotions to inform better judgment. Indeed, paying attention to and processing your feelings is the best way to ensure you’re not always acting on them. Feelings aren’t facts, but they are real, and they contain real information. “Relevant emotions,” the authors insist, “are a common currency that let us compare apples and oranges” when making decisions.  


Sometimes you’ll have to pick between options that can’t be neatly compared (e.g., should I go to law school or become a yoga instructor?). In these situations, how each choice makes you feel can help when your pros-and-cons list falls short.


They will help you learn how to identify emotions and where they are stemming from, examine how they are likely to affect you, and teach you how to counteract them if necessary. They explain why the one area where emotions should not be a part of the equation, when you should never, under any circumstances, rely on your gut feeling, is in hiring (put simply, we all have hidden biases, and it’s discriminatory), and provide guidance on how to do it properly. They share evidence that psychological safety is the most important determinant of a team’s success—not personality types, skills, or the seniority of team members—and why it’s an absolute necessity when building teams with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, which evidence suggests is extremely beneficial, but only when psychological safety exists. They explain why task conflict can be good and productive, and how to address and overcome relationship conflict. They also help us navigate more modernly banal decisions like how to structure meetings, how to handle social media requests from coworkers, and the DOs and DON’Ts of digital communication (very important: proofread for emotion before you hit send). They discuss gender, race, age, and cultural differences, give tips for introverts and, more uncommonly, for extroverts to communicate better with each other, establish how and when it is best to provide feedback or critique. They tell us why they hate the old advice to “never go to bed angry,” and how to apologize. They are irreverent and funny throughout, while remaining honest and pragmatic. And what it all boils down to is that:


Effectively processing what you feel gives you the power to do more than bring your whole self to work: it enables you to bring your best self to work.


At the end, they provide an “Emotional Tendencies Assessment” to help you learn about your own emotional tendencies, your team’s emotional culture, and your organization’s emotion norms. (There is a version online if you want to get started right away.) The beauty of it all is that it demonstrates that becoming more “reasonably emotional,” that even traits like empathy, are learnable skills. This is important for leaders because “Research shows that our brains respond more positively to empathetic bosses; when we feel a personal connection with a leader, we try harder, perform better, and are kinder to our colleagues.” And it is important for the rest of us because, well, who doesn’t want to work in a more emotionally mature workplace, or live a kinder world? One that embraces that which makes us most human, that makes us feel most alive—our emotions. Not only can we all help make that happen, we now have another helpful resource for doing so.

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