Human Force: The Power of Emotions in the Workplace

For this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I was joined by Natalie Boudou, executive coach, trainer consultant and author of a great book called ‘Human Force’ that suggests practical ways leaders can create positive emotional cultures in the workplace.

My guest for this conversation was Natalie Boudou an executive coach, trainer, consultant and author of the book ‘Human Force’. Natalie and I discussed the cost of ignoring emotions in the workplace, the impact that the pandemic had on emotions within the workplace, how we can lead with emotion and how to lead with empathy.

To get started I asked Natalie to introduce herself by telling me a bit about who she is, what she does and what led to writing a book.

‘I am an executive coach, a trainer, a consultant and of course a new author as well. As you know, my book just came out and I work with organisations to help them to leverage the power of human beings, what I call the human force. It’s to build cultures of belonging, to build cultures of care and to build cultures of recognition as well. So that’s my mission and I love my work. I’m very passionate about it.

I have previously worked in the private sector. I’ve worked for the United Nations. I’ve also held senior management positions, so I’m very familiar with how workplaces function and run. Last year I wrote this book which has just come out and that is really a culmination of the experiences that I’ve had both in my personal and in my professional life. It contains details about lots of research about the workplace today and also has contributions from some of the leaders that I work with as well.’

In her book, Natalie discusses the cost of ignoring emotions in the workplace. I asked her to give me some examples of how ignoring emotions can negatively impact both employees as well as the organisations that they work for.

‘I think the important thing to remember is that very often we do sometimes tend to ignore our emotions. We tend to ignore the ones that are a bit painful or unpleasant. You know, emotions such as fear, anger or sadness because we don’t like the feeling. We don’t like the unpleasantness. What’s clear and I use this metaphor in the book is that if you think about emotions a bit like emails coming into you, they’re there, they have a message for you. So, they’re like emails that come into your inbox. If you do ignore them, you can be sure that you’re going to be spammed at some time. They’re going to come back and they’re not going to disappear. They’re going to be there. They’re going to persist and you probably know that.

I mean if you’ve ever you’ve had trouble falling asleep at night or maybe you wake up in the morning or maybe you’ve had a lingering headache for some time, that’s often a sign that there is some emotion that hasn’t been dealt with properly or hasn’t been digested. So, the cost of ignoring those emotions, well first and foremost, they will impact our health.

Maybe they’ll impact our sleep. Maybe they’ll impact how we feel. We’ll get physical problems such as headaches or backaches or other types of things physically. They will also impact our behaviour. When we are very emotional and we’re not actually dealing with it, maybe we’ll be more aggressive. Maybe we’ll be more hostile. People who tend to avoid their emotions often go down two routes.

We often call it bottling or brooding. If you bottle it up, you’ll keep those emotions in, but my word, when you do explode at some point it’s often not very appropriate. Or perhaps you’ll be a brooder. Maybe you’ll just be brooding, ruminating, and turning things over in your head which is not healthy either. That will have an impact on you and also on the people who are closest to you as well, whether it’s your colleagues or the people you live with at home. They will feel the impact of the fact that you are avoiding the emotions. Organisations themselves cannot avoid emotions in my opinion. We come to work as human beings. We cannot leave our emotions at home, so our emotions are part of us.

They are factored into everything we do at work. And here’s a good thing, is that they can also be extremely powerful in many things that we do at work. So, you know, a lot of things that we have to do at work, whether it’s things like performance management, having important conversations, making decisions, or creating a new product.’

Natalie talks about emotions at work in the post-pandemic world, so I asked her, ‘How do you think the pandemic has changed the way that we view and handle emotions in the workplace and how can we adapt to these changes?’

‘There are a lot of bad things that came from the pandemic, but I think one of the good things that came from the pandemic is that at last emotions are being talked about with regard to the workplace. I mean, I myself during the pandemic supported a lot of teams and a lot of managers who were desperately trying to work with the emotions of their team members. Of course, they were struggling to handle the implications of the pandemic and what it meant, but a lot of them were suddenly faced with this emotional side. It was really in their face and I think that since then, as a coach, trainer and consultant, I can bring this topic more easily to the workplace.

People are not so surprised when we talk about that. I think the other thing since the pandemic also is that most of us have moved into hybrid ways of working or remote working more than before. That means that we are looking into people’s homes. When we talk to them on camera on Zoom meetings, in Team meetings, we see into people’s homes and we see their personal lives much more. We talk about our personal lives much more, whether it’s with regards to flexible policies, flexible work arrangements or coming into work or working from home, we are far more involved in people’s personal lives than before. That’s emotional and requires a whole new skill set as well. So, I think those are the main areas of change.’

Picking up on Natalie’s point, one thing I’ve discussed with my clients is that intrusion into your personal space isn’t very inclusive for introverts in the team because you’re suddenly peering into their personal space where they go to recharge their batteries. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we often think about the obvious characteristics like gender and ethnicity and visible disabilities and stuff like that. I get my clients to think about the less obvious or the invisible traits as well. Traits like introversion and extroversion, where you might be an introvert working in a very extroverted team and the way of getting to the top is by putting yourself out there but as an introvert that might be difficult to do. It’s important for leaders to think about how they can accommodate both introverts and extroverts.

Natalie agreed adding, ‘You’re having to think a lot more about the profiles in your team and how they’re handling working from home, working remotely. For some people it works, for some people it doesn’t work so easily and you need to take that into account. So, there’s a whole new layer of emotional skills that are required to manage this hybrid working model. So yes, things have changed quite a lot I would say, yes.’

In the chapter in Natalie’s book called, ‘Leading with Emotion’ she emphasises the importance of emotional intelligence in leaders. I asked her to explain how high emotional intelligence can improve a leader’s effectiveness and overall team performance.

‘When we’re talking about emotional intelligence, I think today more than ever people are recognising that leadership is tricky and it’s not just about managing projects or delivering results, it’s also about leading people and that’s really where emotional intelligence comes in.

We just talked about the changes that have happened since the pandemic. Changes are constant whether it’s hybrid, whether it’s technology, it’s changes and people are going to be anxious about those changes. Your team members will be anxious about those changes and leaders will need to support their teams through that. So, it’s extremely important that they develop these skills. Interestingly enough some people call them soft skills. I don’t think that’s a very good term because I think these skills are actually quite hard and I prefer to call them people skills. What’s the value? Why is it important? Well, what we know from research and from lots of surveys that have been carried out over the last few years is that leaders who have high emotional intelligence are able to manage in a more authentic way.

What that means is that they use their emotional intelligence to connect with people, they’re more genuine, they’re able to bring across who they are and when that happens that builds trust. We talk a lot about the need to build trust with your team members. When you are able to work with your emotions and be self-aware, you can also be authentic about that and that builds trust. I think another area where emotional intelligence is important is around innovation and creativity. There’s so much pressure now on companies to step up, to innovate, to be ahead of the curve. Emotionally intelligent leaders provide environments where people feel safe to try, safe to take a risk and safe to fail. That’s crucial when you’re working towards innovation. So, I think there’s a whole area around innovation. Then of course I think there’s a whole new element around health and wellbeing as well.

When you have emotionally intelligent leaders, they are able to put themselves in the shoes of other people. They’re able to have caring conversations with people. They’re able to spot the signs that people are perhaps having too much stress or need some support and, in some ways, prevent situations from going too far. So, the team’s health and wellbeing is an area where emotionally intelligent leaders can have a huge impact. Last but not least, working in this hybrid model is requiring leaders to work on a new level. Emotionally intelligent leaders monitor and understand the needs of their teams in this new changing model.’

It’s all really great advice and something I talk about with my clients is the need to create that trust and that psychological safety because that really is the foundation for everything else. If people don’t feel safe contributing their ideas, if they don’t feel safe speaking up, if they don’t see something going right then that’s not going to help you on the next rung of the ladder, which is having conflict or having healthy conflict in the team and working your way up.

Natalie also has a chapter that you’ve dedicated to ‘Leading with Empathy’. I asked Natalie, ‘Can you just share with us the value of empathy in leadership and also provide some practical tips for leaders on how they could enhance their empathetic skills and maintain that accountability?’

‘I could talk to you about this all day of course, but I will try to give you as much as I can now. I think the important thing to know about empathy is that sometimes people confuse it with sympathy or pity and it isn’t. It means that you understand where somebody is coming from and perhaps you go as far as feeling how they feel but it doesn’t mean necessarily that you agree with them. So, you’re really looking for that understanding about what’s going on with the other person which will enable you to deal with whatever situation in a better way.

We talked about what’s been changing since the pandemic but this whole topic of empathy was being talked about long before the pandemic and today, more than ever, empathy is something that companies need to think about. In particular, and I talk about this in the book, the younger generations, millennials and Gen Z, will look for companies that offer empathetic leaders. They will want their organisations to be empathetic and they will vote with their feet, i.e. they will not stay if they don’t find that in companies. So, in terms of attracting and retaining talent, it’s a very important subject.

In my book, I talk about a lot of surveys, which show organisations where there are empathetic leaders do so much better than other organisations. They have higher levels of creativity and they have higher levels of engagement as well. There are lots and lots of statistics about that as an area that’s been heavily researched as well.

About the strategies, there are so many, I’m trying to pick just some of the best ones. For me, it all starts with listening and I think this is one of the things that’s done quite badly by most people. Perhaps we would like to think that we listen well but actually, when we start to explore it, we realise that we don’t. It’s about giving the time to listen to people. I think empathy is very difficult to do when you’re rushing around. You have to carve out moments in the day when you are prepared to be with people. Sit down, listen to what they’re saying. I give lots of tips about how to listen and one of the things, of course, is that you need to be present. So not rushing meetings or conversations, not squeezing these conversations in between sets of meetings but really giving the time to listen to what people are saying and make them feel like they are heard.

We all want to be heard but it doesn’t happen that often. So that would be one of my first things to explore that area of how you listen and how you can be in the right zone to do that. I think another important element that is crucial is curiosity. So, do we actually care about what people are feeling and do we show that we care? Do we ask enough questions? So often it’s so easy to make assumptions and to think that just because we know somebody well, perhaps that we know how they’re feeling or we know how they’re operating. But it’s important to get curious and to ask questions. Again, this reinforces the listening when you ask these powerful questions where you’re digging deep and you’re wanting to understand what’s happening. That’s a great way to reinforce empathy.

Perhaps a last tip which I think is valuable, not always but sometimes, is the ability to show vulnerability. Because, when somebody is suffering or having a difficulty or an issue if you are not vulnerable if you are always perfect or if you always seem to have the answer or you have the solution it will be hard for you to come across as empathetic in a conversation sometimes.

Sharing something that’s difficult for you, sharing one of your failures for example, doing it at the right time in the appropriate manner can really open up that empathy as well.’

I’m a big fan of Brene Brown and all of her research and work into vulnerability. I like what Natalie said about the need to listen. I remember when I worked at Deloitte, we had a leadership charter and it was really simple but one of the things said, ‘We make time for people’. When I first read it, I thought it may be a bit too simple to be true, but I quickly realised that it was the simple things that we had to remember. So, just giving people your full attention, not being distracted by your laptop or your phone going off. Actually, properly listening to people.

Natalie acknowledged that it’s incredibly difficult to do this. ‘We’re all so extremely busy and we’re all juggling all this technology all the time, emails, WhatsApp messages, everything. It’s very hard to listen and you have to make a real effort to do so, I think.’

I’ve trained as an executive coach myself, and we did lots of training about listening properly, and active listening. It is tiring when you sit down to do a coaching session for an hour and you have to give somebody your undivided attention and listen properly. My coaching instructor said, We all do hearing very well, but we don’t do listening particularly well.” It is a skill that you have to develop.

In her book, Natalie mentioned the importance of holding delicate and difficult conversations in the workplace. I’m interested in this because I think there’s a lot of fear about talking about diversity and inclusion at times. People don’t want to put their foot in it, they don’t want to say the wrong thing. They don’t know how to talk about difficult subjects like racism in the workplace or ableism. Or there are some topics that are taboo. People don’t want to talk about things like the menopause, for example, or mental health. So, the world of diversity and inclusion is rife with these awkward conversations. I asked Natalie what are some of the key strategies she teaches for approaching and navigating these conversations to achieve positive outcomes.

‘As leaders, we will need to have those conversations all the time, and it can be in any of those areas. It can also be in performance management, somebody’s underperforming or there could be a conflictual situation at work. There are so many different areas, and the problem is, and we know this as well from lots of research, that managers often avoid these conversations. They do this for lots of reasons, maybe they’ve had bad experiences before; maybe they don’t feel equipped to deal with it. But more often, it’s because unpleasant emotions will be involved and it’s not wanting to go there, that makes them avoid these conversations.

So how to handle that? Well, I think one of the things that’s often overlooked about difficult conversations, is it’s all in the preparation. How you prepare yourself to go into a conversation which might be a little delicate, which could run the risk of raising emotions or increasing that uncomfortable feeling. The way that you prepare yourself will be key. So, obviously, when you prepare yourself for conversation, from a cognitive point of view, you might be thinking about, what is the objective of this conversation. What are the things that I need to talk about, or the points that I want to raise? That’s very cognitive and that’s fine, but more importantly, is to think about how you are feeling about this conversation. That bit of self-awareness, which I talk about throughout the book, is key.

Thinking how am I feeling about this conversation? Do I need to vent some of that emotion if I’m feeling a bit angry about something before I go into the conversation? Should I get rid of that emotion by talking to somebody and getting it out of my system? And what about the person that I am going to speak to? Can I put myself in their shoes? Again, a bit of empathy. Where are they coming from? What are they likely to be feeling? And lastly, in the preparation phase, it’s also around the mindset. How am I approaching this conversation? If I approach this conversation from the point of, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be difficult, you can be going into it as if you’re going into a battle. That’s not going to be healthy or likely to do you any good. So, the mindset that you have, perhaps this is a conversation that needs to happen. It’s an important conversation. That’s a more positive way of approaching it. So, that’s really the preparation,

So, you’ve done the preparation. How do you actually then navigate that conversation? We’ve already touched upon this when we’ve talked about not rushing listening. Find the time – the right time. Don’t do it at the wrong time of day. Don’t squeeze this conversation in between two meetings. Think about the time. Think about the venue. Maybe you don’t want to have it in a room in the office with no windows. Maybe it’s nice to go outside. The environment also counts for how successful a conversation will be.

Then of course, I think one of the most important things that scares people about these conversations is how they will react emotionally. So, what happens if you are leading this conversation and you feel that your emotions are rising and they are getting the better of you? Well, that’s the time to put in place some sales management techniques, which are at the beginning of the book. Essentially, it’s about being able to pause. You might need to take a break. Maybe you need to have a sip of water, whatever it is, just to take the tension down and to give the chance for people to feel better and for the conversation to then go on afterwards.

So, pausing, I think is important. There are other techniques, of course, that you can do, such as anchoring, when you touch the table or you unfold your legs, for example. They’re all skills to bring you back into the present so you’re not going to be led too much by your emotions. There are so many, but I think basically working with your emotions during the conversation is key to being able to handle that. And not being afraid of it either. It’s natural, if it happens, it’s natural. You just might need a pause to re-collect and calm things down a little bit.’

Building a positive, emotional culture is a significant theme throughout Natalie’s book. I asked her ‘What are some of the practical steps that people could take away to create a culture of belonging, care, recognition, and appreciation?

‘Again, a very big subject, but I think the most important thing is that people need to feel safe. We touched upon this psychological safety earlier on. People need to feel safe and feel listened to, then they have that sense of belonging, they have that solidarity feeling. When they come to work and they don’t feel like they have to mask maybe or cover up who they are or what they feel, that really does increase a sense of belonging.

One of the things I think you just need to work on today is how we maintain meaningful connections, particularly in a hybrid world, where perhaps we need to be more deliberate about maintaining those connections. So, how we use technology, for example, is key. When do we want to have a Zoom meeting or a Team meeting, and when is it perhaps more appropriate, for example, to just pick up the phone? It’s something we don’t do anymore. But it’s maintaining a very human touch. When is it important to work from home and when is it more important to be in the office? Maybe there are certain scenarios, delicate conversations, for example, where we might want to do it in person. Again, maintaining open lines of communication where we can talk to each other freely, even if we’re working remotely.

Onboarding, for example, welcoming new team members. Make sure that you put them in touch with people straight away, and introduce them to people. Maybe you give them a buddy with whom they can learn the ropes, but at least they have some sort of connection. When you’re onboarding remotely it’s quite difficult to feel that connection. And in terms of caring for people, it’s really embracing kindness, showing that you care for people. Maybe it’s acts of kindness, like bringing somebody a cup of coffee if they’re looking a bit tired or offering to share some of their work, if you’ve got that space. Again, it’s paying attention to the signs of stress in your workplace when people might be feeling a bit overwhelmed and reaching out and having caring conversations, making time for people.

These are all things that require time, not necessarily huge amounts of time, but time, nevertheless. And when you give that time, you’ve saved so much time at the other end. I think that’s an important thing to mention that we all feel that we’re stretched at work, we’re running around, but giving that time to sit down, to ask how people are feeling, to listen to what they say and then to act upon it in some way is key to creating those emotional cultures, I think.’

To get a copy of Natalie Boudou’s book go to the website where you can download a free chapter of the book or click this link to buy it on Amazon.

Human Force: The Power of Emotions in the Workplace - Mildon