Emotion, Systems and the Workplace


As leaders, it is our role to ensure our people are treated as well as possible. We want engaged employees who are happy and thriving. It's good for them and good for the organisations for which we work. 

As a leader in our organisation, whether we are managing people, processes, policies or widgets, there are certain expectations others have of us and that we have of ourselves.

Being human should be part of this. However, many of our organisations forget that leaders, managers and employees are humans too. It is for this reason, that the humanity is often missing from our workplace.

Being human involves having failings, flailing’s and foibles. It involves having emotions. 

Being human entails living life and all its messiness. Sometimes, no matter our best laid plans, the messiness in our everyday life spills over into the workplace.

Being human in the workplace

An area I am most passionate about is recognising that we are emotional beings. How can we bring an emotional awareness to the way we interact with others at work?  How can we ensure that we treat each other with compassion and kindness, often despite what policies and processes stipulate?

Through my work with bereaved parents, and my own personal experience, I know all too well that processes and policies and systems do not allow for genuine emotional awareness and human connection. 

People are messy and unpredictable. 

Life is messy and unpredictable.

Systems, policies and processes are not messy nor unpredictable. That's the whole point after all – they remove the unpredictability and messiness.

The Industrial Age was all about removing the humanness (the messy, unpredictability) from production and industry. And we have, to a degree, maintained this throughout most businesses and corporations. 

At times in business and corporations it can feel that we should not show any emotion unless it is positive. And even then, 'high spirits' (that lovely euphemism for happiness) can be frowned upon within corporations where being serious, responsible and sensible is the preferred mode of operation. 

We are human beings; our life and work are intertwined. Life happens, and yet we still must turn up to work. As leaders, we know this. We must bring our best selves to work no matter what else is going on.

Emotion in the workplace

I am passionate about raising awareness of emotion in the workplace, and grief in particular.

Grief in the workplace is not something we are comfortable with. Yet it happens. 

Whether it be the loss of a colleague, the passing of an employee’s partner or the stillbirth of a longed-for baby; these sadness’s occur.

How we deal with these events speaks to the compassion and humanity of the organisation, and ourselves.

Systems vs emotional awareness

We have all experiences systems, processes and procedures that are designed to assist us in our workplace. We work hard to attempt to humanise them, with amendments to ensure our people feel cared for and seen by the organisation. However, there are times when this can go terribly wrong.

Despite the best intentions, even well-designed systems and processes are not infallible.

I'd like to share a story with you. 

A very senior person in a professional organisation, a dear friend of mine, had a son. His first son.  But the baby was stillborn. His wife worked in the same organisation, so their HR system knew that she had taken maternity leave. 

The system did not know that this child had been stillborn. 

At some point, an enterprising HR professional had set up an automatic letter system in the system, whereby, upon the birth of your child, you would receive a congratulatory message from the CEO of the organisation.   It was a beautifully printed card, embossed and elegant, personally signed by the CEO and proudly stating, "Congratulations on the birth of your child."  

For the majority of new parents, this is a lovely hack to an impersonal system.  A personalised message shows kindness and thought. Most new parents would feel seen, acknowledged and valued by their organisation when they received such a warm, congratulatory message. 

However, this is not a comforting, nor appropriate, message when your child is stillborn.

We could take the view that something went wrong.

Yet, everything looked to be right. The systems and processes had been amended to acknowledge the very humanness that makes us special. The birth of a child is a significant event for anybody, whether it be the parent, grandparent or the colleagues of the parent. 

The organisation has done a great job in ensuring the staff feel valued, seen and acknowledged with this congratulatory message. 

But there was a small area of oversight. 

When things don't work out as expected.

We've all been there. Where a well thought out system or process works for 99% of the time. 

It's the 1% that causes problems.

I'm not proposing that we focus on the 1%, but we do need to acknowledge that despite best intentions, systems and processes cannot replace basic human compassion, and to be honest, a little commonsense. Particularly when it comes to grief in the workplace, such as the loss of a child.

Perhaps rather than focusing on the 1%, we need to consider how can we ensure humanity and emotion is still represented in our workplace? And more specifically, in the systems we establish? 

Leading for Emotion

It is in times of great emotion and grief we need leaders to demonstrate compassion. It's at these times when our humanness, emotional awareness and connection are our strongest leadership attributes.

Occasionally this may mean we need to be a little more aware and vigilant regarding the unintentional impact of well-intentioned systems and processes.

Together, by having these conversations, making some adjustments and acknowledging that people are multidimensional and they bring all facets of themselves to work, we can insure a more human focused, compassionate workplace. 

We can do this, together.


Rowena Mabbott


Rowena is a Life & Loss Coach, writer, speaker and consultant. Through her coaching practice JoyHopeLove, she works with people who have experienced a transition point (such as the loss of their child) to help them discover or rediscover the joy in their life.

You can learn more about Rowena on her website. You can also connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.