Why Don’t We Talk About Managing Our Emotions At Work Until It’s Too Late?
1:30 pm, April 2nd | by Sarah Devlin
I’ve cried in the office a couple of times, and I’m in my twenties — I haven’t been in the full-time workforce for that long. A few of these incidents were due to personal crises that came up while I happened to be working, but the other times I’ve cried have been because I was frustrated and didn’t feel that I had anyone to talk to who would understand or help. Once I cried during a difficult meeting with my boss, which is pretty high up on the (long) list of my most embarrassing moments.
None of these were good days, but in all of these cases I was able to extricate myself from the situation afterward and take a walk or go somewhere else to gather my thoughts and cool down. Personal issues aside, however, one thing I didn’t do was think about why I was getting so agitated about work issues in the first place. I felt that I was setting myself up to repeat a pattern, but I didn’t feel that there was anyone I could talk to.
In a recent Daily Beast article called “The Perks Of Crying At Work,” Peggy Drexler cites Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, in which Sandberg admits to crying at work in the past. Sandberg offers the anecdote as a comfort — she cried at work and it wasn’t the end of the world. She went on to have an extraordinary career. While this is certainly nice to know, it feels a bit like cold comfort to women who aren’t yet at the top of their field (or aren’t yet masters of emotional management).
I graduated from college in a historically bad economy, and among the members of my peer group lucky enough to find full time jobs there was an underlying feeling that we had escaped eternal unemployment by the skin of our teeth. That kind of job scarcity and sense of helplessness in the face of forces beyond our control certainly made the possibility of being fired even more scary. The idea of crying at work — of having something bad enough happen to you to make you cry at work — was terrifying. And yet, the first time I had a conversation about it with anyone was when I talked to Anne Kreamer in December about her book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion In The New Workplace (also featured in Drexler’s piece).
When I interviewed Kreamer, she drew a connection between 17th century enlightenment thinking, with its emphasis on hierarchy and rational thought, and the historically male-dominated workforce outside of the home. “There was a kind of a male socialization and acculturation that went into the formation of the workforce,” she said, one that resulted in Enlightenment-era routinization, rationalization and hierarchy becoming the norm.
Of course, when we talk about showing emotion in the workplace, we are usually talking about women crying. But one of the most interesting aspects of her research, to me, had to do with women’s anger. With the exception of a few popular depictions of evil, emasculating female bosses (oh hey, Sigourney in Working Girl!), female anger surfacing at work is not presented as nearly the kind of professional crisis moment as shedding tears is. When men become angry, Kreamer’s research shows, they’re perceived as asserting their authority and becoming leaders. When women explode, however, they’re bitches — and tears are even worse.
“I liken tears to the ‘check engine’ light on your dashboard,” Kreamer said, “Not a sign of weakness, but rather our bodies’ most powerful emotional reset button.” She found in her research that there are a few different kinds of tears, and the basal tears that keep our eyes from getting dry are different in their chemical makeup than the tears we produce when we cut onions, or the ones that well up when we’re upset.
Women are operating at a deficit in the tears department in three ways: there’s a documented bias among the people Kreamer surveyed that young people suffer from an inability to properly manage their emotions, particularly young women. Additionally, women produce the hormone responsible for generating tears in quantities six times greater than men do; moreover, their tear ducts are physically smaller. The result is that a woman and a man could be feeling the same amount of distress, but it’s far more likely to result in tears for the woman.
Finally, the one emotion that everyone in Kreamer’s research responded to in a uniformly negative way was explosive anger, though men (particularly younger men) tended to see it as an effective management tool. In the same vein, many women reported first feeling angry at work, but also feeling incapable of expressing it. Their bodies were already biologically primed with the hormones that flood our systems when we feel anger. The result? Tears.
“It’s a double whammy,” Kreamer said. Women think, “I wasn’t able to say what was on my mind, what a loser I am — oh my God, I’m such a loser, I cried!” When I told her that I could remember feeling the exact same emotional progression at work before, she responded, “We all do.”
We learn as schoolchildren to count to ten and to share our feelings of distress with other people. Why is managing emotion in the workplace so different, to the point that we’re only now starting to dig into the issue? Perhaps some of the difficulty lies in the transition from school to the working world. While someone might feel comfortable expressing anger or distress to an authority figure as a student, there’s an understandable reluctance to do so when the authority figure is also your boss.
Kreamer offered several constructive suggestions for dealing with frustration at work during our conversation. Physical movement can change our entire physical and mental chemistry, she said, which will probably trigger recognition in those of us who unwind after work by going for a run or taking a yoga class. For those less athletically inclined, a walk around the block can produce the same effect.
She also suggested practicing metacognition, or the process of critically evaluating what you’re thinking and feeling. The more practiced we become at figuring out what’s pushing our buttons, the more we’ll be able to identify our emotions and help ourselves regain a sense of control. For others, Kreamer said, “the practice of writing down what you’re experiencing allows you to externalize the emotion, understand it and develop a way to respond to it.”
Of course, having more women around isn’t the only big change that the workplace has undergone recently. The technology that has allowed us to stay connected is also exhausting our emotional reservoirs, Kreamer found. Texting, instant messaging and email allow us to stay in touch with family and friends throughout the day, but also blur the line between work and our personal lives, making it more difficult to leave a tough day at the office behind when you go home at night. Kreamer’s advice for dealing with that constant connectedness is to find something that you love doing outside of work, something that “grounds you with your own internal spiritual or creative self. If everyone in your life is work oriented, you will become so depleted you will become brittle.”
One thing I do find frustrating about so much of the advice for women about emotional regulation at work is that the onus is typically on us to manage our anger, rather than employers to create a work environment that minimizes employee frustration and distress. Kreamer, as a former executive, has thought of that too. When we spoke she offered advice to bosses as well: “Don’t triple-book meetings — be present, not looking at your computer or your phone [or doing anything that might] make a person feel like an undervalued member of the team.”
Bosses set the tone at work, Kreamer noted. “They themselves need to learn what to do when somebody cries in front of them, to express empathy and compassion in a believable way. They need to set boundaries around what work/life balance is. It’s harder for people lower on the chain to go home to be with their kids at dinner at 6PM if the boss is always there until 9.”
So let’s say that you take Kreamer’s advice, taking care to protect your work/life balance and making time to unwind. There will always be difficulties that arise at the office, incidents that are distressing enough to cause frustration, anger or tears. What happens if the worst case scenario comes true, and you cry at work?
I asked Kreamer what she thought would be the best way to come back from shedding tears in front of colleagues or bosses. “One, I would not feel ashamed if the outcome were tears,” she told me.
“Don’t hang your tail between your legs and act like you did something shameful. If you’re in a big group you could make a bit light of it — [say something like] ‘Wow, I’m not sure where that came from.’
If you’ve exploded in a meeting, apologize. Don’t underestimate the power of a clean and simple apology — go the person and say ‘I was way out of line, I’m incredibly sorry. Don’t try to excuse yourself — that’s not an apology.”
Kreamer gave great advice, and her book is an important step in an ongoing discussion of emotion in the workplace. After speaking to her, however, and reading about Sheryl Sandberg’s and other women’s experiences with tears in the workplace, I wonder if we could add to it. For instance, could we include this kind of emotional management training in our formal education? It seems incredibly backward to me to not even begin to have this conversation until I had already been working in an office for several years. Wouldn’t it be more helpful if we talked to each other about effective tools to contend with strong feelings at work before being thrust into the pressure cooker of a 9 to 5 (or 9 to 7, or 9 to question mark) job?
As it stands now, we’re not being prepared to handle the emotional toll that our work is taking on us, with the lion’s share of our focus going to the “worst case scenario” of crying on the job. Well, that’s already happened to me — the worst case scenario came true — and I’m still employed. But rather than expect to develop a strategy through trial and error, can’t we find another way? What if we could require people to take Emotional Management 101? What would that look like?
<em>Do you think that we’re doing enough to prepare full time workers to regulate their emotions on the job? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.</em>
[Photo via Shutterstock]