Quick Fixes

Stop bottling up emotions!

How to create psychologically safe environments. Stereotypes are not welcome.

In April, 2022, Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels sparked online fury when he claimed that women’s football teams concede more goals, in short, because “they are more emotional than men”. His comments which targeted women footballers in regard to sports psychology (i.e, resilience levels after conceding a goal) were regarded as discriminatory and “slightly bizarre.” From those who spoke up in defense of the women’s game, we saw allyship in action.

Former Arsenal men’s striker, Ian Wright, was quick off the mark, writing on Twitter: “Kenny Shiels talking foolishness! Talking about emotional women! Didn’t that man see how many times I was crying on the PITCH!’”

Yvonne Harrison, Women in Football’s Chief Executive, also commented: “It’s something women have had to face for years and years right across society, not just sport, and the comments are very unhelpful and not particularly inspiring to young girls or boys.”

Although Shiels has since apologised, the toxic effect of gender-based norms – what ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ should look and feel like – persists everywhere. And people tend to forget the reverse impact on men.

Alongside the founder of Belong, René Carayol, I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a coaching session in which a business leader called George was being carefully invited to let go of what he had been conditioned to bottle up for his whole life – his emotions. He could not stop crying. And it was clear that this was the first time George had opened up whilst at work.

This vulnerability was not a sign of any weakness, but a sign of strength. George felt he was (finally) able to express how he was feeling, which every other day before had gone unseen and unheard in his company.

In many parts of the world, men are still brought up to be ‘brave’, and women to be ‘perfect’. These dangerous social constructs of what men and women “ought to be” create numerous unhelpful behaviours in the workplace. They also make it inextricably difficult for gender non-conforming individuals, such as non binary folk, to adapt to the workspace and build relationships with their colleagues. Most commonly, those constructs hinder the ability for colleagues to bring their full authentic selves to their work, mainly for fear of what others might think of them.

Optimistically, when leaders create a psychologically safe environment for authenticity to prosper, it invites colleagues to be truly honest both to themselves and to those around them.

Safe spaces have the capability to bring together differences, or social pressures, to allow relationships to flourish. They create environments where colleagues, no matter their background, can feel the freedom to honestly express their voice and feelings on matters that are important to them, without any judgement.

Importantly, creating safe spaces drives inclusion in a workspace since negative experiences, most likely of exclusion, occur at the intersection of gender and other social identities like race and class. There is no opportunity for inclusion if masculinity, first of all, is taken for granted and people continue to assign it “toxic” characteristics.

For inclusive workplaces, creating this safe space for all is essential. So when more colleagues feel that they will be treated with compassion when being authentically themselves – emotions and all – everyone wins.

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