Human Force: emotions in the workplace

Natalie Boudou’s new book shows how understanding the emotions at play in the workforce can make for improved relationships and happier employees.

Stressed woman working from home


There has been a lot of focus of late on how Artificial Intelligence – and specifically ChatGPT – will transform the workplace. There are the usual fears about job losses, but there has also been consideration about how our jobs will change, how AI can relieve us of some of the more mundane tasks and how that will make us focus more on what makes us unique, as humans.

One way we are unique is in our emotional responses to situations. A new book looks at how we can harness these to create stronger, more intelligent workplaces. The book, Human force, by Natalie Boudou,  is about how employers can create a more strategic sense of belonging based on emotional connection and how that will be what differentiates themselves from their rivals.

The term human force is preferred to the more abstract workforce and signifies that there is no going back from trends towards greater emotional intelligence that have been enhanced as a result of a pandemic that has made us question the role of work in our lives as well as causing untold emotional turbulence generally. Even so, Boudou says it is rare that she encounters business leaders who have perfected the art of connecting remote teams on an emotional level and have created a sense of belonging among employees who rarely see each other face to face.

Emotional triggers

The book outlines the importance of emotion in the workplace and of understanding how workplace situations can act as emotional triggers, affecting outcomes and relationships. Boudou counsels that employees need to better understand their emotions in order to be aware of how they can negatively affect them in the workplace. Leadership is vital and there is a big section on leading with emotion, with concrete examples of how to do this, such as checking in with people on an emotional level before a meeting – for instance, asking ‘name an emotion you are feeling this morning’ and checking their own emotional level before they start a meeting, including online meetings. Boudou talks about different strategies for managing hybrid teams of introverts and extroverts – for the latter, having a virtual open-door policy on Slack or WhatsApp might work so they can communicate easily if they are having a bad day; for introverts, sharing notes and agendas ahead of the meeting so they have time to think about what they want to say and allowing comments in writing via the chat function.

Boudou says it is tempting to think working remotely is less tiring than face to face working, but she states that surveys show it can be emotionally draining.

When it comes to leading with empathy, she suggests using open questions such as what is happening with you right now and what do you need that don’t just require a yes or no answer. She advises not using questions such as ‘why haven’t you? which suggest judgement. Leaders also need to build an ‘empathy wall’, she says, so that they don’t get overwhelmed by the emotions of others which means building in time to step back and take stock of what is happening.

The book also has a section on handling difficult conversations – and not avoiding them – and on avoiding gender stereotypes when it comes to emotions. The final section of the book looks at how to create a culture of belonging, which she says will take time. Too much of our lives are taken up with what she refers to as an ‘information tennis match’ where ideas and opinions are exchanged but we don’t take the time to get to know each other. Engineering opportunities for social connection is vital, she states, even in the remote world. This includes virtual coffee breaks, book of the month events to break the ice, and peer-to-peer mentoring programmes. Emotional connection needs to begin from the moment a person first interacts with the organisation and be backed up by a culture of care, recognition and appreciation. That doesn’t mean things like ‘salesperson of the month’ as this will only benefit one person on the team. A more effective tool, says Boudou, might be a peer-to-peer recognition scheme where members of a team rate each other as they will have a better idea – outside bald sales statistics – who has gone the extra mile.

Emotional wellbeing

Boudou says some employers have invested in wellbeing initiatives over the course of the last few years, including yoga sessions and meditation retreats. However, these are missing the day-to-day emotional background to how we work. Instead, we need to change how we work, she states. The pandemic blurred the lines between our home and work lives. It made employers devote more time to regarding team members as people, but since then many employers have drifted away from the kind of open dialogues of that time and back to “business as usual”, she says. That is a loss.

Boudou concludes: “Forget about escalating perks and benefits. Forget about unlimited holidays. Instead, focus on helping people to find their sense of purpose so that they feel connected, part of a community, cared for and valued. This is the way to reduce burnout and see off quiet quitting. Employers who do this won’t simply be reshaping the workplace to bring it more in line with how people want to work today and to prepare us for a better future. They will be playing a pivotal role in helping people achieve significant improvements in their mental and physical wellbeing.”

*Human force: the power of emotions in a changing workplace by Natalie Boudou is published by Rethink Press, price £16.99.

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