Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

When Emotions Well Up In The Work Place Tread Carefully

Appropriate and inappropriate displays of emotion in the workplace

Posted Apr 22, 2014

An exasperated Tom Hanks, in A League of Their Own, told his sobbing female right fielder: "There's no crying in baseball," creating a catch phrase for the ages. He also raised a question. Does the same hold true for the office?

What about emotional displays in general? Are they good, bad or should they be checked at the door? Have the rules changed with the rising importance of emotional IQ -- becoming more attuned to our emotions and those of others?

The answer was obvious in the days when the tough-guy workplace was organized by dominance and fueled by testosterone. Showing emotion -- especially the weepy variety -- was like wetting your pants in the school yard: a life-altering event.

The workplace that is replacing powerful titles and chains of command with collaboration and teams is becoming more emotion-friendly.

What about office reaction to expressed emotions?

Opinion varies. For women some would chalk up crying to being a women thing -- it's just what they do. Others see manipulation -- it's a tool to get something she wants. For crying men, the typical reaction is extreme discomfort -- akin to watching someone get sloppy drunk and tell off the boss at the Holiday party.

As for other emotions, men tend to get a pass. The double standard is alive and well. With anger: women are difficult, men are tough. A confident woman might be typed as cocky or aloof. A man is a take-charge guy. Sympathy means she's weak. For men -- he's a sweet guy.

Crying is just one show of emotion. There are others that can stray beyond the guardrails of decorum.

Avoidance of emotions may go against nature. Neuroscience tells us that emotion is hardwired into every aspect of our lives -- including work. There are 600 words in the English language that describe emotions. And we have 43 facial muscles to convey them -- even those speaking different languages can easily parse expressions -- I like you; I want to hurt you.

It's not realistic that we'll navigate through the day with only a raised eyebrow. That is especially true when the under-staffed, over-committed workday is packed with pressure.

Shows of emotion are also associated with some very desirable outcomes -- like showing the human side of leadership, exhibiting passion for results, driving up a sense of urgency. They divide the old and new work model -- conveying the difference between encouragement and intimidation; empathy and fear.

Repressing them can cloud judgment, blunt emotional IQ, drive up stress.

There are advantages of shows of emotion in the workplace but unfortunately the advantage of shows of emotion, says University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor Dr. Sigal Barsade is also the problem. It spreads. It's called "emotional contagion," It's our human tendency to synchronize our emotions with those around us. Very good for a stirring pep talk to rally the troops around an impossible deadline. Less so for tears of rage in a budget meeting.

Dr. Barsade's advice is simple don't vent. Bottle it and open it up at home. Get help. Deconstruct the situation to figure it out. Entertain the possibility that your emotions are trying to tell you something: maybe you and your job just don't get along. Also consider your place in the organization. The stakes of emotional control are different for a senior manager than they are for an entry-level hire. And one of those stakes is the ability to handle emotions when they explode.

Anne Kreamer, author of It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, says that the key is not to stomp on emotion, but to manage it. Part of that is to get to the source -- find the emotional trigger in an otherwise valuable team member. Go after the cause, not the symptoms.

There is a line between appropriate and inappropriate displays of emotion in the workplace. When emotions well up, tread carefully.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

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