Susan Cain wants leaders to get comfortable with uncomfortable emotions. In her last book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain invited us to consider how society is quick to reward extroverts—and what we’re missing when we overlook the “quiet” people in our lives and on our teams. That book spent eight years on The New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 40 languages; Cain’s TED talks have been viewed over 40 million times, and LinkedIn named her the Top Six Influencers in the World. Now in her new book Bittersweet, Cain contends that in the world of work, we must embrace sorrow and melancholy as readily as we do positive emotions.
Cain maintains that embracing sorrowful and melancholy feelings helps us to become more human. She shared that many people have a difficult time when workplace cultures demand 24/7 optimism and positivity. According to Cain, we connect with each other more deeply when we embrace the range of human experience: the joyful and the difficult. While optimism is essential for making progress toward individual and business goals, accepting and using the human emotion of “bittersweet” can help you better relate to others. Everyone has times of joy and also times of sorrow; we connect more deeply when we accept—and embrace—this duality.
I was excited to sit down in conversation with Cain and hear more about the value of bittersweet emotions.
“Dive into” melancholy.
Cain shares that we often neglect the opportunity to “dive into” our sorrow. According to Cain, inhabiting our sorrow enables us to become more alive and creative; where the most adversity exists, there is the most potential for powerful change. In Bittersweet, Cain examines stories from literature and popular culture. For example, Harry Potter began his journey after becoming an orphan; Odysseus’s travails on his way home from Troy are what made him a hero. We can transmute our bittersweet experiences into creative action and greatness in the world. While we may inherently long for a perfect world free of conflict, adversity provides fertile ground for creativity to emerge.
As we moved deeper into our discussion, I asked Cain to share some research-based ideas from Bittersweet on how leaders can better lead their teams. Given the high rates of burnout and the disconnect many teams feel in virtual-only work environments, how can leaders help teams to connect more deeply? Cain shared five ideas that can help you as a leader become more effective.
Create space for teams to share their emotions.
Cain posits that teams being more deeply connected enables them to do their best work. One way to facilitate this: Cain recommends that, every day, team members anonymously share joys and sorrows of their lives. For in-person teams, leaders can create a whiteboard space in the office where team members anonymously write their feelings, both joyful and sorrowful. As Cain writes, it’s comforting to see that others are dealing with difficult emotions. If you’re in an office setting and having a tough time while it looks like everyone else is doing well, it’s easy to feel isolated. Creating space for teams to anonymously share feelings enables team members to see that they’re not alone.
Try expressive journal writing.
Cain recommends expressive journaling every day for the purpose of more deeply engaging in individual experience. One of the protocols Cain recommends is based on the work of James Pennebaker. Pennebaker is a social psychologist at the University of Texas who has researched how expressive writing can help people cope with traumatic experiences. Writing about feelings, experiences, and thoughts has been shown to help with both physical and mental health. As Cain writes, Pennebaker performed an experiment with software engineers who were laid off: one group wrote about their experiences and feelings daily while the other group did not write about their feelings or experiences. His results showed that the group who wrote about their feelings felt less depressed and found jobs more quickly than the other group.
Recognize that a connected culture drives positive results.
Cain writes in Bittersweet that for one Minnesota insurance billing company, creating a culture of sharing both sorrowful and joyful emotions and experiences enabled each team member to feel heard. As a result, they felt deeply connected to their co-workers. Despite the team’s difficult and sometimes tedious work, the connected culture of the workplace created an infectious energy: the company experienced their lowest turnover rates ever.
Don’t be fooled by appearances.
In Bittersweet, Cain shares a story of a conference she once attended. The conference comprised a group of high-functioning leaders; everyone appeared happy and well turned out. The speaker had everyone write on a piece of paper how they were feeling that day and what was bothering them. The results stunned Cain. Although everyone looked like they had it together, the event moderator read the papers with notes like: “I am going through a divorce right now,” and “My teenager and I aren’t connecting—she’s pulled away from me and I fear what she might be doing.” As Cain writes, we are all going through some heartbreak. This is part of humanity; it’s important to authentically acknowledge that on your teams.
Leaders must create the space for expression.
Cain shared that being a leader means allowing space for team members to share their sorrows. In Bittersweet, Cain writes about Rick—a stoic leader of a deep-sea rig who didn’t show emotions and kept calm in the face of accidents on the boat. However, what actually reduced the number of accidents was not Rick’s stiff upper lip; the accident rate decreased when Rick allowed teams to open up and share their feelings about what was working and what wasn’t. Sharing bittersweet moments made the crew safer.
According to Cain, acknowledging our bittersweet feelings allows us to expand our creative thinking and feel less alone. When leaders facilitate this kind of culture, teams are happier and perform better. Everybody wins.