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Episode 35: Interview with Mollie West Duffy, Co-Author of No Hard Feelings + Senior Org Designer at IDEO

As the co-author of the book, “No Hard Feelings,” and senior organizational designer at IDEO, Mollie talks about over and under emoters, vulnerability as a leader, and how it is okay to talk about your feelings at work.

Every few weeks as part of The Heartbeat, I ask one question to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect about their biggest leadership lesson learned. This week, I interview Mollie West Duffy, the co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work and the Senior Organizational Designer at IDEO.

Claire: Hi everyone, I’m Claire Lew and I’m the CEO of Know Your Team. I am thrilled today to have a really special guest. I have Mollie West Duffy who is the co-author of this incredible book that is called No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, and I read it in one sitting. It’s that good. And not to mention beautifully illustrated by Liz Fosslien, her co-author. We’ll get into what the book is about, but I really wanted to have Mollie on The Heartbeat because this topic of emotions and leadership, I think are inextricable for better, for worse. So wanting to hear from Mollie herself, not only is she an author but she is an organizational designer at IDEO and has taught at Stanford, and written for publications like Fast Companies. So excited to have you on The Heartbeat today Mollie.

Mollie: Thank you so much for having me. Glad to be here.

Claire: Mollie, I know you’ve watched a few of these interviews. And the way that they go is I always start off by asking everyone the same question. Which is: What’s something you wish you would’ve learned earlier as a leader?

Mollie: For me, I wish I would’ve learned how to be a little bit more vulnerable as a leader. I’m somebody who tends towards being an under emoter. We talk in the book about the people who are over emoters and under emoters. Under emoters tend to be a little more reserved, they think before they speak, which is a good thing, but also means that sometimes we can bury our feelings. Over emoters wear their emotions on their sleeves. They’re the people you go to if you want someone to get really excited with you. But they can also sometimes share emotions and then have regret about sharing those emotions, if they aren’t fully processed. So knowing this tendency, one of the ways to talk about that people can get their teams to trust them is to be a little bit more authentic and vulnerable. And that was something I had to learn as a leader to do. I’ve lead teams and especially with clients to do things like ask for help and to say when I’m overwhelmed. And to share some of those emotions that before I would just sort of put deep inside myself.

Claire: Definitely.

First of all, kind of amazing that you know that, that’s what you are. Because I think a lot of leaders who are listening to this or watching this might have just heard your description of an under emotor and gone “Oh! That’s kind of me”. But that term, under emotor isn’t, I don’t know, it’s not kind of popular lexicon. So I’m curious for you, how did you find out that that’s what you were. Was it in the research as you were doing the book? Was it something that happened much earlier in your career? Did someone tell you?

I had never heard these terms before writing the book. That was something that came up in our research, those terms. I think once I heard the definitions of them, that under emoter one really resonated with me because I have heard that in feedback. The words that are often used to describe me are, “You’re very professional. You’re calm. You’re reserved.” I’m very friendly, but I’m not going to be the person you’re going to come to if you want me to get really excited about something. I’m going to be the person that you come to if you need to calmly talk something through. I will be good for that. It’s not right or wrong. We need both in the workplace. I think once people hear the descriptions, probably if you’ve gotten feedback over the years, you’re able to say which side you are. Of course, there’s a spectrum and many people are probably somewhere in the middle.

Mollie: My husband is definitely an over emoter and so I have someone I live with that I can go to to get really excited and I know what he’s like, so that’s my mental model for what that side of it is.

Claire: Definitely.

I can only imagine for folks who do identify as being an under emoter. This is what I’m thinking as you were saying that, I actually think that’s kind of a good thing. Being calm, being reserved. I’m going to be presumptuous here and say, perhaps, it’s helpful in decision making. Perhaps it’s helpful in moments of complexity. What would you say to someone who would argue that that vulnerability of, one, either actually leaning into something that you might not naturally be predisposed to, which is emoting more, and two, actually talking about the things you’re not good at. Couldn’t those things backfire, hypothetically?

Mollie: Absolutely.

In my book, we write about this idea of being selectively vulnerable. As a leader, you definitely don’t want to be overly vulnerable. Leaders have to think harder and longer than the rest of us about when to show emotion. We are all looking for them for the right emotional norm in this organization. How much emotion do we show? We’re studying the way that they display their emotion, or don’t display their emotion. You do want to have some vulnerability. We’re really good at picking up on fakeness, especially in our leaders. If you don’t, as a leader, show any emotion, it’s really hard to trust that leader.

A great example, let’s say something happened in an organization. Like, there were layoffs or you didn’t get a round of funding. If you as a leader, get up in front of the organization, do not fret and say, “I’m feeling frustrated, or sad, as well.” People are going to be like, “This thing happened and you’re a human, and you’re not sharing how you’re feeling about it. Either you’re lying about it or you’re not having those emotions. Either way, I don’t know if I can trust you anymore.” So, you want to share that, but you also don’t want to share too much because that is where you can seem weak. Leaders who share too many personal stories, that can undermine your authority and people can start to question your ability to do your job. We talk about you have to be vulnerable, but selective about it.

You also have to provide a path forward. To go back to the example I made of the layoffs, you could say, “Here’s how I’m feeling, but I trust that we’re going to get through this, and here’s the things that I suggest we do in the next six months to get through this.”

Claire: Right.

I remember reading this section in the book and I took, actually, a ton of notes on it. I think that’s really hard to do, on a few levels. One, being vulnerable in general is just difficult. It’s so interesting that this topic of vulnerability is something that came through in your research and the book. It’s actually something that’s come through in our research. We did a survey with almost 600 employees and managers this past fall, asking them what they believed was the number one most effective way to build trust in an organization. They actually said it was showing vulnerability. Just doing that in general is powerful, but it’s hard, especially if you’re not naturally predisposed to it. Especially if you don’t emote, especially if weakness is a potential undesired ramification that you project in being too vulnerable. So one, that’s just hard.

And then two, now you’re saying I have to be selectively vulnerable. I have to know in what situations, in what contexts, to what extent. Timing, right? I agree, I’m curious for folks listening, what advice would you say, Mollie, from the research or from different leaders that you’ve talked to or from your own experience, how do you draw that line? How do you know? How do you know when to be selectively vulnerable?

Mollie: Yeah, yeah.

It’s a great question. Obviously it’s not for me either. The decision shouldn’t happen if you’re sitting there and then you decide, “Okay I’m going to be selectively vulnerable in this moment.” It probably is going to take a little more time than that before you do that. When you’re feeling emotions, the fact that you’re able to hit a pause button and instead of immediately sharing, either being totally vulnerable, selectively vulnerable, saying, “What are my feelings and what’s the need behind that emotion?” You might be feeling suddenly annoyed with the team. You might be able to then take a step back and figure out in the next hours, or come back the next day, and say, “Why am I feeling annoyed?” I’m feeling annoyed because I have anxiety about us meeting our deadline for this client. The team isn’t working the way that I would want them to meet the deadline.

You can come back and say, “Here’s how I’m feeling.” I’m feeling anxious about getting to meet deadlines. I personally am somebody where, the closer the deadline comes, the more stress I get. What can we do to put in place so that we can get the work done on time?

The other thing is understanding that it’s okay to have emotions, and negative emotions, with your boss. So often we think we’re only allowed to share positive emotions, but it’s totally okay to have a bad day as a boss. We talk about it in the book and Kim Scott who wrote the book “Radical Candor,” — she said, it’s okay to say to your team, “I’m having a bad day. The reason I’m sharing this with you is because it has nothing to do with you, but I don’t want to make your days worse because of my bad day.” I’m sharing these emotions and I’m being fully transparent so that I’m not going to have these emotions go viral towards you.

Claire: Absolutely.

I think it almost sounds, and you touch on this in the book, that it’s a mixture of self awareness, first and foremost. Knowing, “Oh, I am actually having a bad day.” There’s something that’s non-work related or maybe work related that’s causing me to feel anxiety or to just feel off. That self awareness. And then, two is the self-reflection. One thing I love that you talked about in the book is this idea of emotion fluency and seeing the landscape of how you’re feeling and the capacity to productively channel that in a way that is healthy. I love that concept. It’s not denying the fact that you’re feeling a certain way. Not overcompensating, but this mixture of both awareness and reflection. Thank you so much for sharing that, Mollie.

One other thing that I was curious about is you talk a lot about, in the book, this idea of creating psychological safety as a leader. On one hand, you have to be vulnerable, and selectively vulnerable as to not scare people away or overburden them, but then also to help other people in a team feel vulnerable as well. Psychological safety is a term coined by Amy Edmondson. It’s something that’s gained a lot of traction and popularity in the past few years. It’s something with Know Your Team, obviously, we work really hard with our software and with our workshops to teach leaders this.

I want to talk about it in the context of emotion. Why is it important to help employees feel this way?

Mollie: Yeah, it’s such a great concept.

We had heard about it, Google did a study around it back in 2012, and it came up in the context of emotions because psychological safety, at it’s core, is a feeling. It’s an emotion. Which is that I feel safe when I suggest ideas or admit mistakes or take risk and I’m not fearful of being embarrassed by the group. A lot of times, one of the emotions that can be so detrimental to teams is fear. When you’re not feeling safe and you’re feeling fear, you’re not going to share all of your ideas and you’re not going to bring everything that you have to that team. The study said that people who don’t have psychological safety were more likely to leave their jobs, so higher turnover. They bring in less revenue, they’re not as effective.

With emotion, it goes deep. Fear is one of the most base, primal emotions that we have. The body and the brain just naturally shut down.

Claire: It’s interesting that you say how both powerful and prevalent fear is in the workplace. One, we don’t often think, “I’m scared” when I’m at work. Hopefully most people don’t feel that way. It’s so true. We’ve ask a question through Know Your Team to thousands of managers and we ask, “Is there anything that you’re afraid of at work?” The majority of people say yes. I forget the exact percentage, but it was more than fifty percent. I believe close to sixty percent say, “Yes, I’m actually scared of something at work.”

Fear: not only does it prevent you from speaking up, but it prevents innovation. It prevents people from taking risks. It prevents people from doing what they think is actually in the best interest of customers because they’re worried about internal repercussions. It’s even how they treat certain team members because they’re scared of how they might be perceived or how might that be reflected outward.

You did mention some recommendations in the book, but I’d love, if you don’t mind, chatting through some of them on how you get rid of that fear.

Mollie: I love that you asked the survey question, I’ve never heard that before. I’m so curious, I mean we can share it later, but I’m so curious what the common buckets were that people were afraid of.

You can set team agreements.

Claire: Yes, I love that idea you mentioned.

Mollie: How do you want to treat each other? Some example ones we talk about in the book are assuming that your team members want to help you and want to collaborate. Being present. A lot of times, we can get on our devices and not speak to each other as humans. Taking time before we start a project or when we’re working with a new team to create a list of ground rules, and you can keep adding to that, is super important.

Claire: Definitely.

As you were writing this book, Mollie, the number of different studies, articles, research, and people that you’ve talked to are aplenty. Was there something that you wished you could’ve touched more on? Maybe particularly in regards to leadership that you found, but for whether it was editors, or length, or just time, that you weren’t able to delve into? Anything you wish folks could hear?

Mollie: I’m super interested in workplace culture and I would imagine listeners and reviewers are as well. There’s a lot more that I think I would’ve loved to cover. We do have a chapter about that. I think we dove a little bit into emotion norms. That is something that I think we don’t talk enough about and I wanted to talk more about.

Claire: What are emotion norms?

Mollie: I had been aware of cultural norms. And that’s, in an organization the way we do things around here. That’s my favorite definition of culture, how do things get done. An emotional culture is how much is it okay to express emotions in this organization. It really differs by organization. For example, on a trading floor, it’s totally okay to yell and scream and get angry. Whereas, in many offices, that’s not okay. If you’re a doctor, you learn how to suppress a lot of your emotions, because you have to be professional in front of patients if you’re delivering bad news.

In any job, it’s not going to be okay, probably, to sigh really loudly and bang your head on the table during a boring meeting. Even if those are the emotions you’re feeling at the time. How do we pick up on these emotion norms, which are these small actions that are repeated social signals? We oftentimes pick up on them without realizing it. If you are complaining to a colleague and gossip is really encouraged and expressing distaste with the organization is really discouraged, that colleague may nod in agreement and continue to share some of her own pieces of negativity. Or not and you’ll get the picture, “Oh, this is a more positive work environment.”

Mollie: There’s not one right or wrong, but in general, we think that organizations that have compassion and gratitude that are displayed as emotions are much healthier. Most organizations could probably shift toward a little bit more emotional instruction. Those organizations that display…

Claire: Fascinating.

Mollie: Yeah, it is interesting.

Claire: So you’re saying that, by and large, based on the research you were doing, that we as teams skew towards establishing emotional norms, intentionally and unintentionally to, sort of, hold back? And that it’s actually shown to be better if those warmer emotions are shown of compassion and gratitude? How do you do that? In your opinion, and based off your work.

Mollie: Part of it is thinking about what’s obviously going to work in your culture. So what I say may or may not work in your organization. But I think it’s all about communicating that emotions are okay. We write this example in the book, there’s this guy who works for the UK government’s digital service, Giles is his name. He wasn’t high up in the organization, but he created a poster that’s called an “It’s Okay To” poster. He put it up, and it has all these examples of things that it’s okay to do. Especially for new people in an organization, you’re like, “I don’t know what’s allowed here or not allowed.” Some of the things that he said are it’s okay to: introduce yourself, not know everything, ask for help, have a snack, work how you like to work. Just giving permission for some of these things, which I loved.

Another example we talked about is at the Ritz Carlton, they have this thing called the 10/5 way which is where they train their staff to do this. This is obviously in a hospitality setting, but even in large organizations. I suggested this in my workplace. The rule is if you walk within ten feet of someone, you need to make eye contact and smile at that person. If you walk within five feet of that person, you need to say hello. So often in offices, we stop acknowledging other people as human. I have tried to encourage this in my own workplace and it seems to be going well. I think more people are saying hello to me now.

Claire: First of all, I find it, and this may be the con and pro of working at a small company, I’m shocked that people don’t say hello in an office. Much less to say when I’m walking around on the street. You know, I was born in Georgia and lived most of my life in the Midwest, I sort of expect that cordial exchange. What I really appreciate about what you’re describing, Mollie, is the specificity to which the desired behavior that you want to see about emotional expression being determined, discussed, and codified by the leader. You’re saying, write it out. Figure out what are the things you tangibly want to see different. Write out what’s actually permissible and okay to do. That action of codifying it actually makes it okay. For better or for worse, be as explicit about people’s interactions and how emotionally expressive they should be in just greeting one another.

You’re the organizational design expert here, but when you’re thinking about building your team, designing your organization, it’s almost like you’re creating a handbook for a society, for a country. How do you greet one another, how do you show gratitude and compassion. To what extent, and you actually talked about this, there’s a great book, I forget who wrote it, Erin Meyer, who did The Culture Map. Different countries have different modes of cultural expression. You talk to an American who says that something is fine, and you know that doesn’t mean it’s fine. You talk to a German who says it’s fine, and that normally means that they’re fine.

You take that cultural context and you think about that, even in teams, and how we need to be as explicit, perhaps, about what is okay, what is not and to what degree of emotion we can share.

Mollie: Yes, I love that you brought that up. It’s one of my favorite books, “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer. So often we think, “Oh, it’s just between countries.” Working at one place and moving to another organization can feel like going to a different country sometimes. And I guess that’s different emotional and cultural norms at each organization. Within organizations, we are working with people who come from lots of different cultures and have really different backgrounds. Emotional norms that they’re used to or grew up with, according to the organization there, may not be the same. It’s not that we all need to conform, but I think, as you said, leaders very much set the tone. If you feel strongly that you want your workplace to display compassion and gratitude and sometimes frustration, if they’re feeling that, just being really open about that. Doing it yourself, but also codifying, being really explicit, that that’s okay here. A lot of times your employees may not assume that it is.

Claire: Definitely.

I feel like I could keep talking to you for hours, Mollie, but I guess our last parting question here. For leaders who have always struggled with emotions, maybe they’re an under emoter, maybe they’ve gotten feedback that they flip out too much and they’re on the other side of the spectrum, what advice would you have for them? In either thinking about their emotions, framing their emotions, improving on that spectrum of that inner life as a manager?

Mollie: For the over emoters, you said?

Claire: Both. Just folks who struggle with emotions, because I think it’s sort of every part of the spectrum.

Mollie: First of all, just knowing that it’s going to be a constant struggle. It’s never going to be something that you’ll have to stop thinking about or suddenly you’ll just get it. It’s something that can definitely get better with practice. Finding people who you trust to give you feedback on if you are more of an under or over emoter. Getting a sense of that, figuring yourself out first. Making time to prioritize yourself. If you’re a manager or leader, you can’t be an emotionally healthy person if you’re not taking the time to deal with your own emotions. Figuring that sort of thing out.

I think finding somebody who is outside of the organization, a mentor or peer or coach, to practice with. You’re going to have to have an emotional conversation or make an emotional announcement or share something like that. It’s super helpful to be able to say, “Here’s what I’m planning on saying. Let me talk this through with you. How would you respond? What am I missing?”

Claire: I love that, yeah.

Mollie: We think we should be able to figure it out alone, but I will often either do that with my husband or somebody who I don’t work with. Or I’ll write it down. Like if I’m in the middle of a conversation or I need to share some emotions, I will write it down in my notes document and figure it out first. It helps me think about how to frame the emotions, the need behind the emotions, and what am I really trying to get out of this conversation? Or what message am I trying to leave with?

Claire: Definitely.

I feel like our conversation is coming back full circle. It comes back to the acute self awareness. That requires a lot of willingness to confront the things that don’t always feel good. The things that you don’t always like to hear. Your deficiencies, your unintended ways you come across to people. It requires a very courageous amount of looking at yourself in the mirror, flaws and all, warts and all. It requires being disciplined to set aside the time to analyze it, to get other opinions, to write it out. I think that advice is so valuable. It’s something that I actually try, as much as I can, to practice personally. You can’t improve your thinking and your processes as a manager without taking a step back to look at it. Writing it down helps give you that perspective to see and to understand how it can be better.

Thank you so much for sharing that advice. Thank you for all the wisdom you’ve shared and for writing this fantastic book. It’s been out for, I think, just a month, and already gotten rave reviews on Amazon and folks like Susan Cain. I’ve enjoyed it, and I know that, Mollie, you and Liz also have a really fun Instagram with some really cool illustration that Liz puts out every other day, and a great newsletter, as well. If anybody wants to check that out, you definitely should.

Mollie, thank you so much again, for being here.

Mollie: Thank you for having me. Great conversation.

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.