The Dreaded “F” Word at Work… And Why We Need to Embrace It


Written by Rae Kyriazis, Global Vice President of Transformation & Readiness at SAP and CultureCon 2022 presenter.

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It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon—the corporate “witching hour” so to speak—and you’re sitting with your head in your hands at a conference table as you count the minutes until your leader’s rant is over. It’s not the first time he or she has raged during a meeting…it happened last month as well. And it will happen again. So, you bite your tongue, avoid eye contact, and try to conceal the fact your face is getting hot from bottling up your frustration and resentment. You don’t even correct them when they inaccurately describe your work, because you’d rather be wrong and “safe” than right and the target of their anger. Does this sound familiar to you?

The other day, I had a sad revelation that, in some ways, preschoolers are more emotionally intelligent than some of today’s managers and leaders. Sure, a four-year-old is more likely to throw a tantrum in the middle of a supermarket over not getting to eat their cookies right away…but are their tear-filled tantrums really all that different from an angry, insult-ridden conference room rant about missed targets? Both individuals are raging about something much bigger than snacks and deadlines, and neither of them had the skills to regulate themselves in a triggering moment. The difference, however, is that the four-year-old is more likely to talk about their big feelings afterwards and possibly even name the emotion behind it so they can better manage it next time. The leader? We avoid their eye contact, wait for the yelling to pass, walk out of the room, and armor ourselves up for the next time it happens. The preschooler grows. The leader doesn’t, and the people around him or her now feel less safe to take risks, grow, speak up, and be themselves.


We use words like “authenticity,” “vulnerability,” and “curiosity” in the workplace to describe how we want things to be, yet few workplaces have figured out how to turn the shift in vernacular into shifts in mindset and behavior. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched someone talking about how they just want to “be real” with people, share a personal story or two on stage, and equate that with vulnerability. Then, minutes later, answer a question about a topic they know very little about in an arrogant and over-confident way. True vulnerability would have been for that leader to admit they don’t know the answer and that this makes them feel uncomfortable. The phrases “I don’t know” or “I made a mistake” are so hard for leaders and professionals to say, yet they can be so powerful in giving people permission to not be perfect and to embrace the discomfort of growth. Our society has taught us to “fake it until we make it” in our careers. And, while there is merit in demonstrating confidence, people don’t generally feel connected with false bravado; they connect with humans—or more specifically, humans who feel.


Ah, the dreaded “f” word at work.


Many of us can share our feelings at home, but when we enter the office—the place we spend most of our waking hours—we shut them down out of fear that they will make us look weak or keep us from fitting in. The irony is that by not embracing our feelings we handcuff our strength and threaten our belonging. As a result, our organizational cultures suffer.


Acclaimed researcher, author, professor, podcaster, social worker, and consultant Brené Brown shared in her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, that there are 87 different human emotions. Guess how many most adults can identify? Three (glad, sad, and mad). It’s no wonder why so many of us have a hard time connecting emotionally with each other; we are struggling to emotionally connect with ourselves! We equip our children with emotionally-rich educational content to help them understand and process their big feelings—yet we offer little emotional education or support to professionals who, in many ways, need it more.

For our organizational cultures to improve, we need to be prepared to tackle the messiness of emotions in real and honest ways. To do this, we need to first create psychological safety. Psychological safety is defined as the feeling and belief that we will not be punished, judged, or humiliated for speaking up with questions, concerns, or mistakes. When we feel psychologically safe, we are more inclined to take risks, try something new, be ourselves, and connect with others in more compelling ways. In my presentation at CultureCon 2022, More than Words and KPIs: How to Harness Psychological Safety to Create a Culture and DE&I Movement that People Actually Believe in, I will share my personal experiences with helping teams to create psychological safety and embrace their feelings at work. In the meantime, I hope you will find these tips helpful:


· Create judgment-free zones. Schedule a “no right answer” brainstorming session with your team, or a simple one-on-one conversation with someone to explore a problem to give yourself and your colleagues a safe space to listen, explore, and experiment without fear of judgment or rejection.


· Find opportunities to bring in diverse perspectives. If the people you are collaborating with all agree with you, it’s probably time to find a few who don’t.


· Be curious and listen deeply. Ask two-to-three open-ended questions when someone presents a point of view that is new or contrary to yours. These are my favorite questions: “What else?” “Paint a picture for me of how that might work?” “Can you tell me more?” Always go deeper than surface level.


· Beware of bystander behavior. Ask your team to adopt a “if you see something, say something” mantra regarding close-minded or psychologically unsafe behaviors. This will give people permission to speak up instead of armoring up.


· Celebrate people willing to admit they don’t know or that they were wrong. When someone admits to not knowing the answer or to making a mistake, commend their honesty. Admitting to not knowing and taking long pauses are uncomfortable for people, but they are so important in creating psychological safety.


I would love to hear from you: What examples have you experienced when people are able to express their feelings in a productive way? What challenges have you had in creating a safe space for feelings at your workplace?


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With over 20 years’ experience as both a top selling sales professional and a trained life coach who studied with Stephen Covey, and 7 years leading a global, award-winning, first-of-its-kind multigenerational culture transformation program at a Fortune 500 software company, Rae Kyriazis is equal parts “corporate rainmaker” and “human whisperer.” Rae’s years spent in high pressure results-driven organizations, coupled with her coaching practice, have given her the unique advantage as a cultural catalyst who has the credibility and authenticity to relate to teams in distress and the skills to help them realize their potential.

Leading the Field Transformation & Readiness team at SAP, Rae is called on by top executives to transform some of the company’s most challenging status quo cultures. By taking a deeply individualized long-term approach to culture transformation and pioneering learning techniques focused on adaptive human skills, growth mindset, and collective intelligence, Rae has been able to turn underperforming teams with high turnover into top-performing teams that people love to work with and for.

In 2014, Rae was asked to take on her self-described “opportunity of a lifetime” and establish the first-ever global sales training academy at SAP to break old molds at the company and infuse diverse, early talent into the organization. Since then, Rae has led the recruiting, training, and integration of 1,300 young professionals into the sales force in 70 countries across the globe, decreasing the average age of the sales force by 7 years and increasing women in sales by 4%. Graduates of the award-winning SAP Academy—which represents the largest investment in talent in SAP’s history—are bringing innovation to SAP’s customers and outperforming seasoned sales professionals.

Rae, a relentless optimist, is passionate about unleashing potential both for businesses and for the people who make them work.