Acknowledging Emotions in the Workplace

Emotions need acknowledgement in the workplace.

Otherwise, they’re a little like free radicals—molecules containing an unpaired electron that are known to be unstable and highly reactive. Free radicals can be very damaging. 

Unless we pay attention to them, tune in to them, name and validate them, emotions in the workplace can wreak similar havoc. Not only do they cause stress to an individual, impacting how they show up in the workplace, but those emotions can also go free-roaming and make trouble with other people and teams. 

It’s common, and understandable, for a leader to focus on where they are going, outcomes that need to be achieved, and how to solve for business results, while forgetting to acknowledge these unspoken, unattended emotions in the room. And yet in my work I hear a calling for people to really be heard, understood and validated. 

What are the signs of unacknowledged emotions? A person or group may appear resistant to change, unmotivated, and unable to take action. If this goes on long enough in a group, moods falter, teams start working in silos, and people feel undervalued, tired and, eventually, done.


When you recognize how others feel, it tames the free radicals of emotion before they wear everyone down. I have seen the positive results when leaders shine a light on, listen to, and validate the full range of emotions and perspectives. To do this, they must let people know that they want to fully listen and understand what is needed, and then show their sincerity by actually following through and listening to the answers and emotions without offering judgement.

A few starter questions a leader can ask: 

What is happening or what happened?

How are you feeling? 

What is your perspective? What is in the way of a solution? 

Empathy not sympathy

Some leaders worry that validating emotions is akin to agreeing with or sometimes even giving in to another person. This work is actually not about agreement, but about attending to a person and their feelings. Another way to say this is that it’s about showing empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy is about feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, using our imagination to understand more about their perceptions, feelings, and point of view. We can then communicate back to a person that we have heard and acknowledged what they are expressing. Empathy is a compassionate healer, and will allow people to move forward. When you do this as a leader at work, you should find that people brim with more energy and ideas, and that fewer “free radicals” are getting in the way of what you and your team want to achieve. 

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