CRYING TO TEMPER TANTRUMS: HOW TO MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONS AT WORK
Have you cried in the work restroom or a meeting with your boss? How about awkwardly try to comfort a coworker in tears? Or maybe you’ve been the culprit or victim of explosive, finger-wagging, temples-pulsing anger? If you’re nodding “yes,” it’s not so surprising. Despite the corporate expectation to check your emotions at the door, tempers and tear ducts continue to swell in workplaces everywhere. We’re all human, after all.
“Since the recent study of emotion, we’re beginning to understand that the old-school sense of the workplace as rational and everything outside it as appropriate for emotions couldn’t be more wrong,” says Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal, Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. “In the workplace, whether you’re pitching a new concept or negotiating a deal, emotion is involved and important.”
Kreamer, a former television executive, faced her own office crying jag when she was head of children’s channel Nickelodeon. An unexpected call from an irate and screaming Sumner Redstone, chairman of the channel’s parent company Viacom, left her physically shaking in anger and openly crying in front of her staff. Looking back, she says not only was she furious and weepy—she was humiliated to boot because she had given in to the tears.
She decided to get to the bottom of how we think about emotions in the workplace--from crying and yelling to debilitating anxiety and frustration—and why women feel particularly ashamed after crying at work. She details the latest scientific findings, the gender differences of emotion, and how we can better deal with employees’ and our own emotions in the office.
The Science Of Emotion
Emotions were developed as survival mechanisms and are hardwired into our biology, just like metabolic processes and muscular reflexes, says Kreamer. Once, our automatic primitive brains had to flood our bodies with hormones if we sensed danger—a predatory animal or a snake in the road. Even though our environment has changed, the same biological system remains.
“We’re no longer faced with physical threats,” Kreamer says. “Now, we’re faced with cognitive threats. Verbal aggressiveness creates this same flood of emotion.” The boss’s cruel criticism, a colleague’s underhanded sneak attack or surprising personal news delivered at the office all send our bodies reeling, despite that our minds are struggling to control any “inappropriate” reactions.
Why Women Cry And Men Explode
Scientific evidence shows there may be something to the old stereotype that women cry more. Neurologist William Frey discovered that women cry an average of 5.3 times a month—in or outside the workplace—compared to men’s 1.4 times, and in a survey conducted by Kreamer, 41% of women admitted to crying at work in the previous year, compared to just 9% of men. It’s partly biological. Kreamer says women have six times more prolactin than men in their systems, a hormone related to crying, and also have smaller tear ducts. “So a man will well up, but a woman’s tears will course down her face, making her look more ‘out of control.’”
It’s also cultural, Kreamer says. Women don’t feel they’re able to express anger at work (“because when they do, they’re called bitches”), so are more emotionally constrained. But often that suppressed anger is eventually released—as tears—which leaves them feeling ashamed. “It’s an incredibly vicious cycle,” she says. Meanwhile, she found that two-thirds of young men believe displaying anger is an effective management tool, even though explosive anger has been found to be devaluing and demotivating to staff. When men do erupt in anger, she says they’re less likely to stew over it or feel humiliated.
How To Manage An Employee’s Emotions
It’s important that managers understand the role of emotion at work, what it communicates and how to handle the flare-ups, says Kreamer. While there’s a wide spectrum of emotion, she believes crying and anger are most important because they have the potential to derail an individual and team.
Kreamer advises that managers acknowledge the behavior rather than ignore it. If an employee begins to cry, say: “You’re clearly disturbed. Is this a good moment, or would you like to come back this afternoon?” If they ask to come back, suggest that they write down what’s bothering them. She says this type of understanding response helps the employee feel less shame and also turns an upsetting event into a productive conversation. If it’s a disruptive, angry outburst, she believes it’s important to communicate that the behavior is out of line with the culture.
How To Manage Your Emotions
It’s important to be aware of your own emotional response patterns and try to handle them professionally at work, says Kreamer. If someone insults you in a meeting and you feel like you might cry, she recommends excusing yourself to get some water. If you don’t do it in time and cry in front of colleagues, call out on the behavior that upset you. You could say: “Clearly what you’ve said disturbed me. Could you tell me why you said that?”
Work will feel particularly emotional in the beginning of a career, she adds, because young people have less experience in dealing with these situations and greater insecurity. “Over time, if you flex these muscles, you’ll gain mastery,” she says. It may also help to balance out your emotions and begin the day from a place of happiness by regularly exercising, meditating, writing in a journal, finding a time everyday to disconnect from work, and creating a joyful workspace with personal pictures and mementos. “We all work all the time now,” says Kreamer. “We need to demystify the role of emotion, so that employers show more empathy and employees find more balanced approaches.”
Article by Jenna Goudreau