Founder's Guide
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The Founder’s Guide to Emotions

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As an Enneagram Type 7 (The Enthusiast), I’ve spent my life chasing new highs and running from my “negative” emotions. I must have been fated to find a career in startups, which provide a constant rollercoaster of both. New highs: growing revenue, raising larger and larger rounds, hiring executives, landing large customers, selling your company. Negative emotions: anger when a team doesn’t deliver, fear when you believe you are going to miss projections or not be able to raise capital to support the company, sadness when a valued team member decides to pursue a new opportunity.

Our society today is set up to encourage everyone from the founder/CEO to individual contributors to not deal with emotions in a healthy way. I’ve spent my whole life trying to suppress and avoid the “bad” ones, drowning them out by watching Netflix for hours after work, drinking, escaping on vacation, or fantasizing about doing something else with my life.

In the past year, I’ve made a commitment to myself to actually feeling my whole range of emotions. Doing so has changed my life in ways I would never have guessed possible, and allowed me to turn my job into a dream job that I love.

 

Five basic emotions

There are five basic emotions that all human beings experience. If you’ve seen Inside Out you might recognize a few: joy, excitement, anger, fear, and sadness

Emotions aren’t good or bad—they just exist. You can’t control them or choose to not have them and, perhaps most importantly, they are often a signal that is telling you something important. For example, if you are feeling anger about a team’s performance, that may be an important signal that something is badly wrong with how that team is set up: that they might have the wrong goals, the wrong plan, or the wrong skills.

Unfortunately, we are socialized early on in our development (and then much later at work) that being open about our emotions is bad. We build mental models that we shouldn’t show fear, anger, or sadness when these emotions arise—like a personal algorithm or protocol we don’t consciously think about. This happens differently for men and women. Men are often permitted to show anger but are punished for publicly showing fear. Women can be permitted to show fear, but are denigrated for showing anger.

We ignore our emotions at our own peril and the peril of our organization. Not showing our emotions doesn’t mean we don’t experience them—we experience emotions whether we want to or not. When we don’t allow ourselves to fully process our emotions, we don’t pass them through the body and release them. Instead, they become long-lasting grief, resentment, and other toxic moods. Emotions can be important signals that something is going wrong and needs to change, either for ourselves specifically or for our organization in general. If we don’t recognize that, we can’t get to discussing the underlying problem.

We might ask ourselves: in a society that encourages us to ignore our emotions, what can we possibly do?

 

Bringing your emotions to work

Learning to talk about your emotions at work can be very challenging. Many of us have mental models that we have built over decades that if we show emotions we will be thought of as vulnerable or weak. We may even believe that we will be punished for it: colleagues may talk behind our backs, we might be passed over for projects and promotions, or worse. It can be hard to take the risk and make a change without the support of others.

If you are the founder or CEO of your company, you have the opportunity to change this mental model for everyone in your organization. It is easiest for people to build new mental models when they are able to see other people model the behavior (and the subsequent reaction by others to that new behavior). No matter what size company you have, or what the focus of your business is, you have the opportunity to show leadership here.

Here is how to do it: when you are in a 1:1 conversation or group meeting and you feel an emotion like anger, sadness or fear, instead of ignoring it (which you have probably been doing for years), do the following:

  1. Name your emotion to yourself
  2. Name it out loud
  3. Explain it
  4. Drive to a discussion about solutions

Here are the steps, broken out.

 

Name your emotion to yourself

The first step is to figure out what you are actually feeling. We’re not used to really thinking hard about exactly what we are feeling. We typically lump all fears, anger, and sadness into the “bad” category and try as hard as possible to distract ourselves from it.

One hack is to have a list of emotions you can refer to. When you feel a strong sense of emotion, pull out your list if you need to and spend a moment looking at it to identify what you’re feeling.

 

Name it out loud

Now that you know what it is you are feeling, name it out loud to others. This can be a very daunting step, we aren’t used to saying “I feel anger” or “I feel fear” to others. We worry about how other people will interpret this or believe it won’t be productive to discuss, and so we default to believing that we should just ignore it and let it pass.

Pull the trigger and take a risk. Believe me, the first time is the hardest. When you say it, say it in a non-violent way. Say “I feel anger…” as opposed to “You are making me angry right now…”.

 

After all, other people don’t make you feel emotions. You experience situations, and then sometimes you have an emotional response. Click To Tweet

 

Other people are not responsible for your emotional response and, likewise, other people can’t expect you to not have emotions. There are no right or wrong emotions, and they don’t have to be justified.

It is important to note that naming your emotion is different from behaving your emotion. If you are angry, you want to say “I’m feeling anger right now and I want to discuss why.” Instead, when we are feeling angry we often unconsciously demonstrate that anger through our behavior. It shows in our voice (we yell at other people or speak in a frustrated tone) and in our body language (we slam doors or laptops closed). We do this instead of talking about our anger because we haven’t been taught how to discuss anger, and therefore toxic behavior is the only release we know.

 

Explain it

Now that you’ve named it, you are probably very worried about how it is landing with others. You should immediately dive into giving others more context for what you are feeling.

The context might look like this: “I’m feeling fear right now, and I think I’m feeling fear because I am worried that we are going with this plan because we have momentum around it, and not because it is still the right thing to do. I think my fear is that we haven’t done a recent analysis and if I don’t speak up I’ll get steamrolled into going along with a plan I might not believe in anymore.”

It is important to explain that your emotion isn’t about the other person. They aren’t making you angry or afraid. You are informing them that when you experienced the present situation, you felt a certain way, and want to have a discussion about it.

 

Drive to a discussion about solutions

Now that you’ve named and explained your emotion, you can use it as a tool to drive the discussion in a productive direction. This is the valuable part that most people never get to. Instead, they feel anger and ignore it (or it leaks out in toxic, unconscious ways) and never get to the underlying issues.

If the other people in the room want to be in a productive, healthy, and positive relationship with you (and if you are coworkers, it is highly likely they do), then they are going to want to collaboratively figure out ways to address your anger or fear. In the previous example, if someone is acting as a facilitator (or you are just doing it yourself), the next step might be to say “What can we do to address this fear?”

Then you can have a discussion about the underlying issues. What is causing the fear? Would the fear be addressed if there was additional time allocated for analysis before a final decision was made? What if you get a final sign-off on the plan? Would that address the fear?

This is an opportunity to drive the discussion to actual action items that will help address your emotions. You might not be able to solve them all (there may be tradeoffs that prevent you from getting everything that addresses your fear or anger), but at least you will feel heard and be able to have a productive and honest conversation about what is going on with the others in the room.

 

In practice

Here is a real example from my work. I was sitting in a monthly business unit review meeting the other day. This is a meeting where the leaders of a business unit meet with members of the executive team to discuss the past month’s performance, progress against goals, and major wins and losses. The goal is for the executive team to act as a “board of directors” for the business unit, and help solve major problems and create strategic prioritization.

Unfortunately, I found this particular meeting fairly boring. And I was not alone: looking across the table, other members of the executive team were on their phones or laptops, clearly checking email. In my past, I would have probably tried to let this feeling go, by telling myself something like “Well, you just don’t like business reviews and have to suck it up.”

Boredom is a form of anger. And with my new commitment to feeling and naming my emotions, two-thirds of the way through the meeting I decided to name it: “I’m bored.”

You can imagine a room where the CEO says “I’m bored” out loud. The look of shock on faces was physical; I think I audibly heard several hearts skip a beat.

In order to prevent anyone from immediate cardiac arrest, I quickly followed it up: “I’m bored, and I’m not saying you guys are boring or that you have done anything wrong. Actually, I think you’ve all done an excellent job preparing for this meeting. I think I am bored because we are really stuck talking about the tactical, and we haven’t changed the goals of this business unit in the past year. However, for the last six months, we keep doing the same thing and it isn’t working that well. I think what we need to do is for the leaders of this unit to figure out a new set of goals they are excited about, and then in next month’s meeting we can figure out how the executive team can best support those goals.”

A brief discussion of how that might work followed, with an action item for the leaders of the unit to meet and discuss the next day. And, in fact, the day after one of them approached me and thanked me: because of that moment, they had the most productive conversation they’d had in a while, and were able to generate some exciting new goals that were more in line with the company’s direction. By willing myself to name my boredom, we had addressed an actual underlying issue that we had been ignoring for months.

 

Helping others name their emotions

Just because you have become comfortable naming and discussing your emotions at work doesn’t necessarily mean it will be that easy for the rest of your team. Founders often have lots of support (leadership programs, CEO coaches, therapists) that others in your organization might not have.

In order to help others on the team name and discuss their emotions, the following may help:

Create an environment that builds trust on your team. If your team doesn’t trust each other or you, they will be much less willing to expose themselves to vulnerability by discussing their emotional experience. There are many ways to build trust, but setting norms around getting to know each other on a personal level and being vulnerable with each other is a good start.

Model the behavior and demonstrate it for others. If they see you able to vulnerably discuss emotions like anger and fear that are generally not talked about at work, it can make it easier to follow your lead.

Create opportunities for emotional check-ins. This can be as simple as starting a meeting with everyone going around the room and naming the emotion they are sitting with at the moment. This can be a priming mechanism to make people more willing to share more deeply later on.

Act as a facilitator in meetings. When you have become more experienced with naming your own emotions, you can help facilitate others disclosing. You want to do this in a non-violent way. If you sense that someone might be angry, instead of saying “You are clearly angry” you might try saying “I might be wrong, but I sense you may be feeling some anger. The story in my head is that when I showed up late to this meeting, you might have thought I was being disrespectful; how does that land for you?” If the other person feels that instead of trying to speak for them or their experience, you are simply asking questions, they will be more receptive to having the discussion.

 

Impact on the founder

The overall impact of all of this has been much more joy in both my personal and professional life. By embracing naming my emotions at work, I have been able to quickly drive towards the deeper, underlying problems that affect our business and have more honest and productive conversations that build trust with my executive team.

One big example: during our executive off-site, we were able to bring up different team members’ fears and anxieties around our company’s strategic plan and products. By being honest about those fears, we were able to come up with action items for how we could address them as a team.

The result here is that our team is now working better than it ever has. I now believe that, as CEO, one of my critical responsibilities is to create a culture and environment where everyone can name their emotions.

 

Impact on the organization

Once the executive team has a firm grasp on this process, they can begin permeating this behavior into the rest of the organization. Invite your business unit leaders to take their teams through the same foundational steps toward naming emotions you went through with them:

  • Create an environment that builds trust on your team
  • Model the behavior and demonstrate it for others
  • Create opportunities for emotional check-ins
  • Act as facilitators in meetings

The same benefits that naming emotions can have on the collaboration between the executive team and the business unit leaders can translate to the collaboration between the business unit leaders and their individual team members. While the leaders of a company may have the most complete perspectives of what’s going on inside an organization, the individual contributors are the eyes and ears of what’s happening on a granular level—these are the last people you want hesitating to speak up when something’s not right. Operating with a culture where people don’t feel secure enough to speak out is like flying blind.

An organization is only as prosperous as its people and while society may be lacking on empowering people to deal with emotions in a healthy way, your company doesn’t have to. It is critical to your company’s success that you prevent people from ignoring their “bad” emotions. Get your team to embrace the full range of their emotions and recognize their value in highlighting problem areas. This will dramatically strengthen your culture, improve the lives of your team members, and make your company a place where people love to work.

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  • Great article! This is similar to “radical honesty” in a lot of ways. If you got an entire team/org on board, the benefits would be huge. I imagine there would be an intense adjustment period where a lot feelings would get hurt. Also, it would be much more intimidating to name your emotions, etc. if you’re not in a position of power like CEO, Manager, etc. or in a group.

  • Very bold and transparent as a founder. I deeply respect the transparency and find this a powerful tool to deliver on people’s best skills. I believe, opening the Kimono here creates meritocracy and developed accountability for how we can support others. You tweeted a real gift through this. Thank you –

  • mm

    Justin Kan is an internet entrepreneur and investor known for founding various companies, including Twitch--a video game streaming platform (acquired by Amazon for $970mm). He served as Partner at Y Combinator, where he impacted over 900 companies and funded more than 130. Currently, Justin serves as CEO of Atrium, where he's building technology to revolutionize the $450bn legal industry.

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