How to clear your emotional debt

Here’s a question – why is that team building days so often involve doing physical stuff together? Surely so-called management away days should be all about building strategies, and time huddled around a flip chart brainstorming would be the best use of the day, right?

We’ll come back to that question later, but in the meantime, I’ve been getting to grips with emotional debt recently, and I thought it worthy of a blog post. So what exactly is emotional debt? Let me give you an example. If you were to split up with a partner, there’s some financial and some physical things to discuss. But there was also some emotional stuff.

Over time, you mostly work through all the other stuff – divide up the savings and bills, sell the house, forgive the wrongs, divide up all the common belongings. When it comes to emotions, we let go of some stuff, but other emotional memories, we hang on to (at least for some time.) When we ultimately move on to a new relationship, if we haven’t let go of some of that emotional stuff, it can have a negative impact on the next relationship. At some point, it needs to be “paid back”, otherwise by hanging on to emotional debt, we maintain negativity that impedes our ability to move forward.

In the world of work, it’s not really any different. The perpetual change, increase in output, evolution of technology, and drive to get ahead of the competition creates a lot of emotions. We spend way more time with colleagues than our own family, so a plethora of emotional debt is naturally going to build up. It’s really important to be aware of emotional debt, its potentially toxic effect, and take action.

On a personal note, emotional debt is something I want to focus on, and in particular, how emotional debt impacts my management style. I’ve been very conscious of technical debt (working in many SaaS and technology businesses certainly makes you aware of the need to constantly fix problems, bugs and holes in your software and hardware products), but the emotional debt is something all managers also need to focus on.

Whether it is sub- or consciously stored up, at some point it has to come out, in order to “clear your head” to take on new stuff, good and bad. I realised that part of my handling of emotional debt is through blogging – despite everything that work threw at me last year, I didn’t miss a single week of posting. For others, it might be more physical, eg running. Or ideally, a combo of both. Simply saying you can “switch off from work” is not enough. It’s also critical in the workplace to pay back your emotional debt collectively. As a team, what United you, may then dive you, but by clearing emotional debt together, you reconnect.

So back to the original question: why is that team building days so often involve doing physical stuff together as a team? My guess is that whilst for some of us, paying off emotional debt is a mental task, for many others, physical exertion is the key. Those typical physical exercises at outward bounds course are a great way of collectively working off emotional debt, and at the same time building and re-building the connections amongst a team. And it’s proven to work.

I believe that in order to truly shed emotional baggage, a mix of physical and mental efforts, together with individual and team efforts is the best way to unshackle the collective team of emotional debt. It won’t happen by itself, so as we head into the Christmas break, why not reflect on what you might do within your own team to shed your emotional debt.

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