There is a scene in the new film A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood when children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, sings a tune about what to do with the “mad you feel”.
“What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right?,” the song asks.
But the most poignant advice comes when the song insinuates that when you feel angry, it doesn’t have to take control of you:
“It’s great to be able to stop, when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong.
And be able to do something else instead, and think this song:
I can stop when I want to, can stop when I wish, can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this, and know that the feeling is really mine.”
The song originally appeared in the award-winning television show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, an American program created to give children “positive ways of dealing with their feelings” and widely lauded for “creating an atmosphere in which a child is accepted and allowed to grow”.
So what do you do, then, when you’re all grown up, but realise you’ve forgotten the lessons you learned as a child about how to calm yourself down, or pick yourself up, or address the way you’re feeling?
Moreover, what do you do when the “mad you feel” threatens to bubble over into your workplace — an arena where you’re expected to be professional, and to know how to deal with your anger, or sorrow, or pain?
Tom Hanks stars as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, and does a gorgeous rendition on ‘What do you do with the mad that you feel’. (Supplied: A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood)
Emotional intelligence is defined by Macquarie Dictionary as “an innate ability to manage one’s own emotions and emotional responses in others”.
“Emotions are naturally useful and functional. Some of our ‘natural’ emotions are integral to work,” Dr David Cheng from the ANU’s Research School of Management said, noting that strong emotional intelligence is of increasing value within workplaces.
“There is a lot of research that says if you stifle your natural emotions, it can lead to poorer performance and mental health.
“But we need to understand what our natural emotions are and why we are feeling them. We need to be emotionally intelligent.”
The good news is that emotional intelligence can be taught, and if you can master your own feelings, it can benefit your colleagues.
As both Fred Rogers and Neighbourhood director Marielle Heller would attest, one of the most dominant emotions we have is anger — the Mad You Feel song was used as a thesis for the entire film.
Anger, according to Dr Cheng, is the emotion you feel “when harm has been done and you are, in some respect, crying out for something to be done to fix the harm”.
In a workplace context, this could be anything from having someone else take credit for your work, to finding out there are imminent company-wide redundancies.
“Sometimes it’s appropriate to feel sad or down or angry, [like] if you find out a fellow employee has stolen money from the office,” Dr Cheng said.
“It’s not wrong to show anger at times, but you want to show it in an emotionally intelligent way. Sometimes you need to cool down for a bit so that when you show it, it comes out right.”
Dr Cheng and his colleagues have also found that when leaders show anger about ethical or moral violations people respect them more. However, if they show anger about lack of skill or ability, people think less of them as leaders.
“If possible, take time to think about whether showing that anger is useful or not,” Dr Cheng said.
“If you show that anger by throwing things around and threatening physical harm on people, the message that harm has been done and you want somebody to help gets lost.
“People get worried about their safety around you or get distracted from the message by your telling and screaming.
“It’s important that the anger you show is tempered and not flying off the handle with intense rage.”
So what happens if you show up to work angry, after an argument with your partner or a fight with your child?
Many of us have been there, but how can we stop it from changing the mood of the office?
According to Rachel Green, director of The Emotional Intelligence Institute, feeling angry about external things is okay — you just need to learn how to manage it.
“It’s a myth that we’re supposed to leave our emotions at the door,” said.
“We’re not robots. We want emotions at work.
“A lot of people at work who don’t have high emotional intelligence let their emotions drive what they do or say, and that’s where it becomes problematic.
“You just need to take time to pause, and know what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling that, and take action,” she said.
Ms Green said that, alongside confiding in a colleague, taking a moment to write in a journal or going for a run to expel some energy can help take the edge off any angry feelings.
“It’s better to go for a run and be an hour late … than push it down or carry it in with you,” she said.
“It might explode like a volcano later in the morning.”
Big girls don’t cry … or do they?
It is not uncommon for strong emotions to bubble over into tears, and it can happen for men and women alike.
“You need not feel awkward,” Ms Green said.
“Crying is not an emotion, it’s a behaviour that is a result of an emotion.
“People can cry from fear, from sadness, from hurt or worry or anger. Some people cry during performance reviews; if someone tells me I’m bad at my job, I’m going to cry!
“It’s not a terrible thing. It’s just that people feel embarrassed when other people cry.”
If you are able to identify the emotions that have pushed you or your colleague to the point of tears, Ms Green said you’ll be able to deal with it better.
“If you can become comfortable with people crying, and allow it to pass, then you’re doing well,” she said.
But emotional intelligence is not just consigned to mastering your anger, tears or frustrations. If you are a naturally happy person, you need to be aware of how you come across too.
“Generally speaking, people prefer a positive mood in others, and so if you are naturally a little more positive that’s a good thing and you should generally be ok in displaying that emotion,” Dr Cheng said.
“If you are naturally happy and you help improve the mood of your office a bit, this is a good thing. But you need to be aware that it may not always be a good thing to show it.
“If you get some flowers from somebody you are really interested in romantically and walk into the office super happy, but the office announces they have to cut jobs, showing your natural emotion of happiness would not be good.
“You should be mindful.”
And herein lies the key: emotional intelligence isn’t just about knowing your own emotions. It’s about reading the room, too.
While yelling, crying or bursting out in laughter aren’t inherently bad expressions of emotions, there are some situations where it may not be helpful to show those reactions.
In these situations, Dr Cheng advises people “to do everything you can to slow down your immediate reaction”.
“Take deep breaths, count to 10, take a break, go to the bathroom if you need to — do whatever you need to do. Then when you come back, try a different response to your first reaction,” he said.
“Often this thought-out reaction, even though it may feel unnatural, is very effective. Once you see [that], you may find it much easier to exercise emotional intelligence.
“It may not work every time, but if you know your natural emotional reaction doesn’t usually improve the situation, it may be worth trying.”
Something that may be helpful in a workplace context is establishing emotional ground rules and developing “the vocabulary to say how we are feeling”.
“We need to be able to talk about it, not just be driven by it,” Ms Green said.
“Establishing emotional ground rules — what do we foster — shows that emotions aren’t something to be punished, but can be utilised.
“Anger or hurt can build to revenge or resentment if left unaddressed. So knowing what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling that way, means you will be able to take action [and] have the vocabulary to say, ‘I’m feeling vulnerable, at a loss, worried’.”
A culture that fosters positive ways of dealing with emotions can unify a team and change the mood.
“Being able, as a team or an individual, to shift a change in emotions so the team is more relaxed or brighter, means they’re more likely to solve problems well,” Ms Green added.
“My dream is that we have emotionally intelligent team leaders and managers, who can role model emotionally intelligent behaviours to their team.
“It’s not weak to show emotions, it can be a point of great strength.”