Why companies need discussion, debate — even defiance — in the workplace

Why companies need discussion, debate — even defiance — in the workplace
© Getty Images

Rashida Jones, an actor best known for her work in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” recently directed a public service announcement video for Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. The video, narrated by Donald Glover, is aimed at people in the workplace who’ve been left “scared, confused, maybe a little angry” by the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. It is oriented to help people better understand how to navigate workplace relationships in a time of change.

Jones’ video likely will be helpful for some and a wake-up call for others, but it’s unlikely to result in lasting change. A more sustainable way to navigate workplace dynamics — for employees and supervisors alike — is to train all stakeholders in the practice of emotional intelligence.

You’ve probably heard emotional intelligence portrayed as a set of “soft skills” or traits such as optimism, assertiveness or just being “nice.” Though popular, the view that emotional intelligence is solely a soft skill is wrong. The scientific conception of emotional intelligence was proposed in 1990 by psychologists Peter Salovey and John (Jack) Mayer. Their ability model of emotional intelligence defines the constructs as a set of skills — including the perception and regulation of emotion — that help people to reason with emotions to inform their decisions. Research shows that emotional intelligence, measured as an ability, has tangible everyday benefits: better performance, more effective decision-making, more satisfying relationships, greater wellbeing.


Managers competent in the skills of emotional intelligence understand that emotions matter and that people can’t “leave their emotions at the door,” as often suggested. These managers have the skills to recognize, understand and regulate emotions in themselves and their employees; they know that emotions affect productivity, relationships and communication, whether we address them or not.

Emotionally intelligent leaders encourage the “Five D’s of Engagement”: Discuss, Disagree, Debate, Defend and Defy. These tenets are far from new but, rather, a recognition of the matter of civil discourse … something that has been lost. As easy as this solution may seem, many managers are afraid that such engagement sessions can become “too emotional” and that the overrun of feelings can affect productivity.

We disagree.

Imagine, if you will, that Miramax, which came to be the Weinstein Company, the namesake of now-infamous Harvey Weinstein, had engaged in the “Five D’s” years ago and inquired as to how employees and partners felt. If the Weinstein Company had had an emotionally intelligent culture, the company might not be for sale today.

The continued exposure of corruption and scandal in every segment of society has highlighted a need for leaders to continually and rigorously evaluate their at-risk positions. Advocate and activist groups, current and prospective employees, shareholders and rating agencies, will demand it.

In most situations that have been uncovered, harassment is a product of the underlying issue: an employee’s behavior reflecting unchecked emotions or a lack of self-control. These behaviors were open secrets for years, if not decades; leadership was either complicit in covering up or turned a blind eye. Bystanders and targets of abuse were afraid to expose the injustices for fear of retaliation; they feared that speaking up would cost them their careers.

In short, many workers experienced strong negative emotions; they knew how they felt and what was happening but, in a culture where expressing emotions is discouraged, it is logical to conclude that your feelings are not important enough to warrant attention.   

For decades, leaders have relied on incomplete methods such as engagement surveys, 360 feedback, diversity and harassment training, whistleblower hotlines. These tools don’t address how employees feel and the underlying causes.

For example, most managers don’t know that fewer than one-fifth of their employees feel that coworkers are appropriately dealt with when they fail to meet their responsibilities.

They don’t know that only 36 percent of their employees feel that their supervisor would support them when things get hard.

They don’t know that fewer than a third of their employees feel all employees are held accountable for their work, regardless of their position in the company.

They don’t know that 77 percent of their employees feel people are unfairly recognized while others with better experience or skills don’t get recognized.

They don’t know that 74 percent of their employees feel their work environment is overly focused on trivial activities and needlessly bureaucratic policies.

They don’t know that 71 percent of their employees speak poorly about their organization to peers.

Yet, according to a survey, “Mind the Workplace,” conducted by Mental Health America in collaboration with the Faas Foundation, 20,000 workers across North America do feel this way.

The need to understand feelings and emotion science in the workplace is at a tipping point.

In the past two years, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has polled more than 15,000 people in the workforce, asking both how they currently feel and how they want to feel at work. About 50 percent of the emotions that people report feeling each day at work are negative.

What can we do to address and close this gap?

We assert that shifting people’s mindsets about emotions, teaching the skills of emotional intelligence to all stakeholders, and addressing the climate and culture of the organization with a particular focus on emotional safety, is key.

Many benefits result from embracing emotions in the service of our goals: We become better decision-makers; we enjoy greater wellbeing; we are able better to help others regulate their emotions; we are more effective at our jobs, more respectful and compassionate with family, friends and colleagues.

The state of the workplace, combined with perceptions about new technology, automation and artificial intelligence, have all the makings for a contemporary industrial revolution.

But that revolution will bear dissatisfying fruit unless the emotion revolution — the feelings side of work life — is treated with the same gravity. After all, what delayed the #MeToo tsunami was the fear of speaking up. What held back listening, accountability and, ultimately, healing was a culmination of moments, days and years of feelings that were unaddressed, suppressed, even repressed.

When leaders pay attention to their own and their employees’ emotions, they unlock the door to a positive culture, better employee health, and greater innovation and creativity.

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a licensed psychoanalyst and educator. She is a member of the advisory board for United Nations Women for Peace. Her book, “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life,” was recently republished by Harmony Books.

Andrew Faas is a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University and former executive with Canada’s two largest corporations, Weston/Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart. He is author of “From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire” (Rcj Press Inc. 2017).

Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University.  

David Caruso, Ph.D., is a research affiliate and management psychologist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a special assistant to its dean.