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Learning through Emotions

"That was me before beginning this leadership program. I was broken."

The group of participants sat in silence, gazing at the powerpoint with the picture of a broken mirror. The jagged shards portrayed a vague image of a woman none of us could have recognized as the savvy executive sitting before us.

"Although at times extremely hard, I consider this program, and personal learning about myself, the gift of my lifetime."

I recently finished facilitating a 6-month leadership development program for a global team of senior executives. The final assignment was to present their learning through pictures. This task, lovingly named "Know Thy Selfie" gave each participant a chance to share how they had changed during the past months.

"I don't know why I'm crying," said the COO who wasn't even a regular part of the program. "I'm surprised! I'm not usually emotional," he said with a big, teary smile.

There were tears of joy. Tears of perseverance. Tears of healing. And tears of accomplishment. I've experienced powerful action-learning projects like this before. I was not surprised by the emotions in the room. But my clients seemed to be sheepish and awkward with these funny things called "emotions." How dare they keep popping up in a professional setting.

What continually surprises me is how often I observe leaders not giving themselves permission to bring authentic emotions into their learning, or their work.

In the USA, it is estimated that 70% of our adult learning happens on-the-job. Think about the last time you learned something wonderfully new. Something thrilling, unknown, or maybe even terrifying. How much learning would you remember if there was no emotion connected to it? How accepted is "getting emotional" at your work place?

We are not robots. We are complex humans with an innate desire to learn and grow. Yet too often corporate America and the West encourage individuals and teams to "leave your emotions at the door."

As a leader, why is it important to encourage emotional growth at work?

1) Emotions put us into motion. It's how we relate to people, build relationships and connect to the world around us. Emotions pull at our heartstrings, get us passionate about the work we do, and make learning exciting. Why wouldn't we want to have a taste of this where we work as well?

2) We are unconsciously hardwired to tune into others' emotional states. Intentionally ignoring emotions in a professional environment is not only unnatural, it's impossible.

3) Emotions are authentic. Whether it's fear, frustration, enthusiasm or exuberance, emotions make us real. Practice getting comfortable with someone else's anger, disappointment or joy. Name it and then claim it. If needed, reframe it.

4) Emotions build an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect when everyone in the room can hold the space for emotions to be present. It's important to give people permission to express what they are experiencing.

When emotions are permitted to be present in our leaders, individuals and their teams, powerful results follow. How can you inspire those around you to tap into their professional, personal and emotional strengths?

As the COO shared with me later that day, "That was the most emotional day I've ever had in my professional life...And it was fantastic."


kellyannaustin's picture

Sarah, Love this! The call


Love this! The call to be more authentic is such a powerful one. Thanks for giving us a few guidelines for helping us see how our emotions are integral to who we are and who we'll be. And that it's a largely untapped strength to draw on in professional spheres, that we need tools to do it effectively!



Greengirl's picture

Hugs Sarah!

You are a living proof that we can never give what we don't have. Yours is a success story of what it means for one to turn pain to gain. You have never failed to inspire me with your ingenuity and leadership development prowess. I love your very practical piece as it reassures one that there is nothing wrong in letting our emotions be as situation calls for it. The world sure needs authentic leaders such as the ones you are committed to building. I am a a beneficiary of your professionalism and can never thank you enough for listening and guiding me every time I reached out to you. Thank you for helping me believe in my greeness enough for me to stay green.

You are dearly loved my amiable and very determined mentor!


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