Showing emotion in the workplace has often seemed like a taboo. Leaders have been expected to be strong, resolute, and aloof. Employees, on the other hand, were to be meek, compliant, and mechanical. Showing any emotion, except perhaps mild contentment at a job well done, was strongly frowned upon.
This convention is changing rapidly. It is no longer forbidden to display the full range of human emotion at the office. Researchers and business consultants alike are starting to shed the idea that the workplace is a cold and emotionless place built entirely on rational thought and action, and embracing the idea that it’s ok to get a little emotional in front of coworkers. In fact, it can be quite therapeutic and lead to a much stronger organization. The difficulty is finding an appropriate way of showing emotion in the workplace.
Next time you feel like expressing emotions on the job, think about these four tips for showing emotions in the workplace, and then go for it.
1. Understand The Difference Between Positive And Negative Emotions
It may seem like a self-explanatory concept, but not all emotions are created equal. Some, like joy, confidence, optimism, and excitement are positive. They exert a lifting force on the emotions of those around you. Others are negative, like fear, worry, or frustration. These tend to dampen the spirits of coworkers.
That doesn’t mean negative emotions are unnecessary or “bad”. Quite the contrary, expressing negative emotions in a constructive manner can serve as an important release to keep them from building up and turning into “bad” emotions. Showing concern for a project’s completion, for example, can keep you from being angry when the project comes in late. Likewise, focusing too much on positive emotions can lead to overconfidence.
The key takeaway is that there is room in the office for both types of emotions, and focusing too much on either category will produce an unhealthy and poor performing environment.
2. Being Positive All The Time Takes Work
One of the biggest pitfalls we’ve seen in office settings, especially ones that deal with a lot of customer interaction, is an insistence from management that only positive emotions are displayed. This has become such a common occurrence that psychologists have created a term for it: emotional labor. Like real labor, being positive all the time is hard work, and can wear on your employees.
Forced positivity has actually been shown to be a strong negative for companies and individuals. It builds up stress by not giving it a timely escape valve, and it creates resentment from employees who want to share concerns and fears, but are afraid of doing so. Mostly, though, it burns people out and leads to high turnover – employees leave because of resentment, or because of physical problems, or both.
Showing emotions in the workplace should mean the freedom to show all emotions – provided they are demonstrated appropriately. While it may be smart to have a stern talk with an employee who blows up at a coworker or breaks into tears mid-meeting, it should not be a punishable offense to express frustration or sadness in a quiet and productive way. Always make sure that your employees have a safe space to show their emotions, whether that be with HR or simply a quiet office that they can retire to when they feel overwhelmed.
3. Men And Women Show Emotions Differently (As Do Different Cultures)
In the rush to increase workplace diversity and promote equality, many companies have embraced women in the workplace. What they haven’t embraced, often, is the different ways in which employees communicate and show emotion. The workplace is still very much modeled on masculine norms, which often makes some employees feel frustrated and angry because it stifles their natural way of showing emotion. It also means that different employees are judged differently for the same actions.
When looking at how others show emotions, consider how you would react if someone more like yourself would have displayed their feelings in such a way. Try to see if you have any inherent biases that might cloud your perception and reception of an emotional display, and remember to make allowances for different cultures. When considering whether showing your emotions is a good idea or not, think about the people around you and the biases they may have against you, and make your decision accordingly.
4. Pick Your Battles
Even though showing emotions in the workplace is becoming increasingly accepted and common, it is still not something every office approves of or encourages. When considering an emotional display, take a minute to think about the culture at your company, the people around you, and the way that your demonstration may be perceived. At the same time, consider how you feel and how you’re likely to feel if you don’t show any emotion. While there might be external consequences, internal consequences can also be a major factor. Holding back from displaying positive emotions can lead to dejection and a loss of enthusiasm, while holding back negative emotions can allow them to build on themselves and become stronger. Both consequences have to be weighed before you make a decision.
One possible alternative is to create a safe space to express emotions in, or a safe group to express emotions to. For example, expressing disappointment in the work of another group or department can be safer if it’s expressed to a close friend or confidant. Crying may be easier if you first close the door to your office and take a 10 minute break. Both options allow you to get things off your chest and lead to becoming a healthier, happier, and more productive employee, but minimize the impact.