Like beautiful robots dancing alone

By Paul Taylor, Head of Organisational Development, NHS Employers

Last weekend I was 17 miles into a 20 mile run when I started to cry. I'm in the end stages of marathon training and it's getting harder.  Sometimes during those long runs, emotions well up from nowhere and the tears flow. It's not pretty, but it does give my running a boost.  After a good "run-cry" I seem to find a hidden burst of energy to keep me going when it gets tough.

It got me thinking about the power of emotions. 

Have you noticed how it's quite trendy for adverts to try to make us feel something? We're positively encouraged to get emotional about our phones and our cars. In fact, I predict that by 2018 the John Lewis Christmas advert will be a 5 minute klaxon accompanied by the words CRY NOW flashing on screen.  Companies want their customers to feel an emotional connection to them, but how do they feel about staff showing their emotions at work?

No thank you!  This is a business - we leave our feelings at the door.

I have a problem with that kind of approach. I recently recorded a podcast about compassion and teamwork that involved asking people on Twitter what compassion meant to them. They used words like love, care, empathy, trust and kindness; feelings words. However in the land of business those words are often banned.

One of the problems is that language about feelings has become too narrow.  When people talk about "getting emotional" it's usually shorthand for "feeling upset" or crying, but if I asked you to name lots of emotions I'd be surprised if your list started and ended with "sad".  When you google "emotion at work" most of the results point to articles that talk about stress or breakdowns. It reminds me of that divinely wicked review of Katherine Hepburn by Dorothy Parker: "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B".

So how do we widen the conversation? And why bother?  Well, I believe that our staff can only make customers feel happy if they feel happy themselves.  But it's more than that.  I think that organisations should do everything they can to help their staff find meaning in their work; to connect them to a bigger purpose; to feel something about their jobs. In order to do this, we have to create the conditions where it's not just safe to talk about emotions at work but where people are positively encouraged to express themselves and how they feel. 

And that's where we come in.

As L&D, OD, and HR professionals we have the privilege of shaping organisational culture. We can help our people to learn about themselves and how their emotions impact on their work. We can help managers to be better listeners. We can help our staff to feel happier at work through learning and growth. Imagine if emotional awareness was a mandatory training course? How about having happiness training as part of induction?

Remove emotion from the workplace and we become automatons. Name any evil sci-fi robot race and you'll find a point in their history when a decision was made to rid themselves of emotions. We're different. Let's inject some feelings into work and help people find true meaning in their jobs. 

After all, as those great philosophers Girls Aloud once said "... without any meaning, we're just skin and bone, like beautiful robots dancing alone."

How do you feel about that?

Paul Taylor created and leads Do OD, the first national Organisational Development resource for the NHS.  Paul works for NHS Employers, the voice of employers in the NHS - helping them to put patients first.  Paul has worked in the NHS since 2003 following roles in Local Authorities, the voluntary and private sectors. 

Paul can be found on Twitter @NHSE_PaulT where he loves to chat about OD, learning, running and Doctor Who. You can find out more about Do OD at

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  • Interesting post Paul - and you touch on a subject that seems unreasonably tough for many people. This whole leave your personality at the door thing is harmfully beyond its sell by date and yet too many people cling to it. An interesting situation unfolded for me recently working with a client.

    Client was in touch to say they received complaints from staff about the fact I showed emotion when we worked together.

    The response to me being in a vulnerable situation interests me, partly because the client deals with vulnerable people often, and partly because our reason for being together was all about difficult conversations.

    I shared the feedback with a few friends – and a close friend who deals with vulnerable people on a daily basis in his work said this to me:

    'Seeing distress in others can act as a mirror for us. It's often unsettling and the desire to intervene, soothe, support whilst not really being able to, can create a negative feeling. Maybe members of your audience were feeling trapped or conflicted and in struggling to articulate their feelings settled for a criticism of you for "making" them feel that way?’

  • Thanks Doug, excellent points.  The idea of vulnerability is really interesting.  On one hand we talk of "showing vulnerability" as brave and inspiring, but "being vulnerable" is seen as something that people should be protected from.  Both are right, which may explain why sometimes the reactions are confusing.    

  • Sorry Paul, me again. I just remembered a short piece I wrote (originally for on emotive language. You asked about how do we widen the conversation, and in part I think that is about the very words we choose to use at work. In case you and your readers are interested - here's a link to the piece.

  • There is a lot of thoughtful insight in your piece Paul – not least the news that Girls Aloud were such deep thinkers. Who knew? I thought it was all “Something Kinda Oooh.”

    Your point about consumer brands trying to create emotional connections is spot on – and the more forward-thinking HR departments are already trying to do the same through employee value propositions, employer brands, employee engagement strategies, shared values etc. They all, in some shape or another, attempt to build emotional connections with the organisation and create a sense of meaning and shared purpose for their people. And when done well, with authenticity at their core, I do believe they can do precisely that.

    But your piece has led me to conclude that there probably is some double standard at play here – because organisations want their people to feel an emotional connection, but they don’t want to see the emotions that go with that.

    So it really is a case of “bring me your emotional connection” (because that sounds controlled, rational, reasonable) “but leave the actual emotions at the door” (too raw, unpredictable and difficult to manage).

    How can that possible work? As you point out, the NHS is setting huge store on the concept of “compassionate care” in the post-Francis world, but that requires people to be emotionally aware, emotionally responsive, emotionally empathetic – it requires people to be “emotional.”

    Building inclusive cultures should be all about allowing people to bring their whole selves to work – including the emotional part – and as you rightly say, that is vitally important work for HR.

    As Japan sang back in 1982 (now there was a band of deep thinkers) – “I Second That Emotion.”

  • How do I feel about that - I LOVE IT! Why is it that we readily recognise that the things that really matter to us are family, friends, fun, love.........and then we have to have "an away day" to enable joy at work. Anyone who hasnt read "The Rules of the Red Rubber Ball" about finding your joy and bringing it into work - give it a the very least its the most kinesthetic book you'll have bought this year.

    Laughter at work should be a KPI not an occaional occurence.

  • Great blog Paul!

    For me emotion is all about "working out loud" being transparent!

    Sharing the wins and the fun as well as the challenges, disappointments and sadness are all part of a great team.

    The question is where the vulnerability should start and for me that has to be with those leading teams. At the end of the day it's about role-modelling the characteristics and behaviours that you believe are essential for a great working and performance environment.

    I had this article tucked away in my "coaching folder" which reinforces the great points that you make:

  • Thanks for all the comments everyone.  I had a little cry at mile 21 during the Manchester Marathon on Sunday and it helped to get me through the final 5 miles.

    Gillian I've ordered the Red Rubber Ball book - thanks for the recommendation.

    Andy that's a really nice article about leadership, thank you.  I'll be using that in the future!

  • Agree with you Paul about people thinking that "being emotional" at work it not the done thing which to me means you are only bringing part of you to work.  If you don't demonstrate how you feel, how can you engage with patients or staff.  So we need to do something to encourage emotions and make them "politically correct" again.

  • Great blog and great discussion, the emotions are there we just bury them a point well made by everyone. Having said that there is a balance to be struck and part of that is personality driven. I am an open book others prefer to keep there emotions hidden. Some people (a bias in this direction in L&D?) go through a wider spectrum of emotions than others who seem to glide along through life relatively impassively? Good leaders are authentic but also know how to control their impact, they create a vision that others can share and believe in and that  impacts at an emotional and I would say spiritual level. We want to believe in what we and our organisation is doing, we want to believe that we are creating something better, as L&D professionals I feel we are privileged to be in a position to play our part in creating that culture. Anyone want to comment about emotional intelligence?!