Emotions At The Workplace: Which Ones Are Allowed?

There’s a razor-thin line between an emotional nut-job and a robot, at least for women at the office. It’s a horrible stereotype of powerful women that we can only be at the extremes of the emotional spectrum. Either we cry during meetings and take everything personally or we have zero compassion and treat everyone like crap. In the business world, it’s hard to make people see that the average woman fits somewhere in between those two poles.

Working women everywhere are concerned with the balancing act required to avoid both labels, crybaby and ice queen. We work our butts off to evoke an even-tempered, almost zen-like calm and level-headedness. But instead of guaging every response for the appropriate level of enthusiasm and frustration, I have a new way to handle my emotions. I’ve realized, it isn’t that women aren’t supposed to show any emotion at all. The reason that there’s such a thin line is because business only has room for a couple types of emotion. Most of them get in the way, but just a few are useful.[tagbox tag="emotions in the workplace"]

It was never a question of how much or how little emotion, we all should have been asking which feelings we were supposed to express! Here are the conclusions I’ve come to so far.

  • Happiness: Not Allowed. This is the trickiest one for me. Too much happiness can communicate “Bubbly Cheerleader” to a group of employers or co-workers who need to see you as a professional. It may seem odd to curb your inner optimism, but happiness is definitely an emotion that get women in to trouble. However, it’s like you can’t ever crack a smile. There is one positive emotion allowed in upper management…
  • Triumphant: Allowed. So you can’t be cheery. But victorious and proud are completely acceptable. In fact, taking pride in your accomplishments is definitely a necessity to show everyone that you’re confident in your abilities. Remember, weakness is not an option here.
  • Sadness: Only For Others. Another confusing emotion here. If a woman gets sad about something that happens to her, it’s definitely crybaby territory. However, if you don’t show empathy or compassion to those around you, then you must be a bitch. The only lesson to draw here is that you’re allowed to be sad, as long as it’s for someone else’s struggles, instead of your own.
  • Anger: Allowed. The anger needs to come from a place of passion. It needs to seem like you really care about whatever pissed you off. Cold anger is the mark of a bitch. Passionate anger is the mark of a charismatic leader who feels committed to their company and their reputation.
  • Fear: Never. Remember that touching quote about, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the belief that something is more important”? That doesn’t apply to the office. Being afraid of anything shows that you aren’t in control of the situation.
This covers the basic emotions at the office. Obviously, there are a lot of variations and special circumstances. Frustration or jealousy may come in to play and you’re going to have to use your best judgment. The honest fact of the matter is that no one can avoid their emotions all the time. But that doesn’t stop your co-workers from preying on your weaknesses and exaggerating your faults. So try to remember, the emotions that prove pride and passion are office-appropriate. Those that show you vulnerable and weak need to be saved for private time.
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    • Dr. Susan Bernstein

      Given that you’re not an authority on emotions, I wish you’d share the own stories that lead you to come to these generalizations, Lindsey, and just make this a “here’s how I can to my conclusions” story, rather than your opinions.

      It is unfortunate that many people feel unable to express themselves fully in the workplace. However, your posting does not address facts, and I encourage you to read Anne Kraemer’s (http://www.annekreamer.com/) book “It’s Always Personal: Emotions in the New Workplace.”

      Interestingly, she finds that, at work, men can often tolerate women’s emotions better than other women can. In the research she conducted, she found that women were much harsher to other crying women, compared with men.

      Please, don’t promote that stereotype and stop people from expressing their emotions. It’s how they are expressed that’s vital, showing emotional intelligence, not emotional dissociation. Trying to turn off emotions is like trying not to breathe. It’s a killer. You need your emotions. They are the instincts and impulses that help you to respond. It’s when you become overly reactive that they are problematic.

      I invite you to read Anne Kraemer’s work, as well as Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence, and see discover how the attitude towards emotions the workplace is changing.

      And then see how your own emotional vocabulary might open you up to a wider range of responses to emotional triggers.

    • Sara

      It is absolutely ridiculous to be told not to show certain emotions at work. Why, because we’re women? Rubbish. Of course you don’t go to work crying about your home/boyfriend/financial troubles, but you are allowed to have down days. The key is finding balance, not hiding some emotions and allowing others to come through. I am always quite happy at work, but not bouncy and perky like a ‘cheerleader’. I have a smile for everyone and a friendly hello, but I don’t jump up and down on the spot with joy upon seeing every single co-worker. Showing fear? Shows humanity. That customer who just tore into you and made you feel like an ant? It’s alright to show that it frightened you to have such a ferocious person in your face – it won’t get you fired, nor will you loose the respect of your co-workers.

      In all, it comes down to commonsense about what is and isn’t acceptable at work. We don’t want to continue to be seen as emotionless robots, but I strongly recommended doing practically the complete opposite of every suggestion the writer had. You’ll find that if you are just yourself, respectful to others and polite, you’ll get far.

    • Vickie Pynchon

      When I was a young associate attorney, I’d tear up if I got really angry. I taught the partner to whom I reported so well that at the first tear he’d say “I know you’re not sad, you’re angry.” No one ever mistook me foe a “pussy.”

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