When it comes to art and creativity, sadness is one of the most fruitful emotional states (just ask any artist). So why is it so often sequestered outside the stoic walls of professional life, why do we seem to treat it as the ultimate taboo in business?
Harvard psychologist Susan David describes this status quo as the “tyranny of positivity,” an inflexible socio-emotional habit that’s limiting our potential. If discomfort is the “price of admission for a meaningful life,” as David suggests, sadness should not only be a necessary quality of any human culture, but also a creative and productive force in any company.
When we talk about agility, diversity, and inclusion–all the trademarks of the modern, innovative organization–we must begin with our emotions. “Diversity isn’t just people, it’s also what’s inside people, including diversity of emotion,” David says.
What actionable steps can leaders take to create more emotionally agile, diverse, and inclusive organizations and reap their benefits? Sadness is inevitable, but we can choose to confront it in different ways:
1. Ignore it
The first option is to disregard our negative emotions. In the professional world, this is often the default choice. Politeness and urbanity, civilization and social codes have allowed us to build up a vast and largely functional societal infrastructure.
On the organizational level, it is easier to focus on quantifiable metrics and concrete practicalities rather than the constant fluctuations of sentiment and the infinite complexities of human relationships. It’s another case of standardization-driven efficiency: instead of bothering with nuance and vulnerability at work, we’re all “fine, thanks.”
Still, valuing a narrow breadth of experience at the cost of other feelings can prove more destructive than letting our moods run their course. The field of psychology has proven that emotions that are pushed aside tend to worsen, a process referred to as amplification.
Studies also found that suppressing negative emotions impairs our memory of information we received in the moment we felt the original emotion; moreover, it increases heart rate and stress levels.
If such a path leads only deeper into the forest of ‘bad’ and ‘worse,’ we’re forced to consider our other options.
2. Accept it
While it is necessarily uncomfortable, one of the best things we can do is learn how to sit with our sadness. This may seem trivial (and our pleasure-loving systems are all too happy to avoid it), but the benefits are profound, especially for leadership.
For starters, sadness, like other emotions, can be seen as valuable feedback from ourselves in relation to our decisions, situation, and the world around us. As David points out, “Emotions are data. They serve as flashing lights,” and they give us meaningful insight into what we care about.
Indeed, passion itself literally means “suffering” (so with all the “passionate” LinkedIn profiles out there, you would think we’d know how to suffer a little). No single strategic decision will result in an absence of negative emotion, but as modern professionals at least we can choose what we’re genuinely willing to suffer for. We’re all involved in a certain degree of emotional labor at work, and the effects can be exhausting.
Sadness, if it is recurring, can stem from melancholia, a constant state of ‘suffering from the world,’ of a feeling of resignation and inevitability, or, it can be a symptom of depression. Surprisingly, one of the United States’ most respected presidents was also one of its most melancholy. Much of Abraham Lincoln‘s life was characterized by what would now be seen as severe depression. While his ‘winsome’ character, isolating ambition, and occasional despondency were evident, these darker moods were not pathologized to the extent they are today, and the president was perhaps a stronger leader because of, not in spite of, the internal struggles he faced. And it’s not just Lincoln: between 25 and 50 percent of US presidents may have suffered from some sort of mental illness.
Despite suicidal thoughts, Lincoln did want to continue living, which eventually lead him to leave his transformative legacy. His power as a leader came from both his tenacious, purposeful determination, and his depth of personality, two qualities which were also the result of his depression.
3. Honor it
Ancient ballads were once composed to glorify sadness–or at least make the pain more bearable in the process. So what is the business equivalent of a heartfelt ballad?
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, with her measured public despair after the death of her husband and later her reflections in her book Option B, has helped spawn a much more open conversation about grief at work, and how to handle it whether as a leader, an organization, or a colleague. As a result, some companies have begun to grant their employees more time for mourning a loss. Facebook, for example, now gives employees up to 20 days of paid leave to grieve an immediate family member and up to 10 days to grieve an extended family member.
Moreover, initiatives such as The Groundswell Project in Australia pursue the mission of nurturing cultures of grief within organizations and thereby creating a more “death-literate society.” Even one of the most cruel forms of loss, suicide, can be recognized. The Semi-colon Tattoo Project was created to honor people who have overcome suicide. A semi-colon tattooed on one’s body is a small but poignant symbol of solidarity which represents that people’s lives are not finished sentences, but that they are still works in progress.
Aside from the ultimate loss, we must also cope with smaller losses in our work lives–the end of employment, a project, or a much beloved idea; the break-down of a collegial relationship, or a major career setback–that require decompression and reflection and are too often willfully or inadvertently ignored in the maelstrom of daily work tasks. Every occurrence of sadness marks the need and provides the opportunity for personal transformation, and proper mourning allows us to say goodbye to our old selves while embracing our new ones.
Rituals can help us navigate these transitions; consider, for instance, the eulogy, which is designed to acknowledge a loss and helps people make sense of it. Any good ending should include both mourning and celebration, an approach exemplified by the trend of Divorce Parties, appreciating what once was, grieving for what is lost, and, through this process, consciously moving on.
With constant change a more regular companion in the future workplace, the kind of emotional resilience that knows how to deal with and thrive in transitions will become an ever more critical professional trait.
Sadness is a keeper
With all that is to be gained by greater emotional flexibility and nuance, what’s holding us back?
It’s simple: fear. The fear of being perceived as soft, as not-up-for-the-task, as unreliable under pressure. Suppressing emotions, however, often results in stifled creativity and burn-out, and ultimately in work cultures that may function in the short term but collapse in more challenging times, because they lack a deeper sense of trust, belonging, and solidarity.
A truly human organization is one where you can not only fail fast, but also be sad, again and again. It’s an environment where you can lose without being considered a loser.