Episode 36: Emotions at the office

March 10, 2014

"The business world...men created it, and therefore its foundation is masculine norms. And masculine norms are, 'it's not OK to show those soft emotions.'" - Caroline Turner

"I found...that people viewed the expression of emotion at work as a humanizing force…as something that showed empathy and compassion." - Anne Kreamer

A typical soulless office? (Photo used with Creative Commons License)How acceptable is it to show our emotions at work? If you've been around a while, you may be thinking 'not very'. And with good reason. When you read interviews with successful women, they often warn other women not to cry at the office. Academic research shows women who show anger in the workplace are judged harshly, while angry men are not. In this show we look at the perception problem women face when they get upset or irate at work - and at what can happen when other people think you're upset. We learn a little about the science of tears (not all tear ducts are created equal), and hear a couple of stories of workplace meltdowns. Some of my guests are confident that both genders can 'be authentic' or 'be ourselves' at work, if not now, then soon. I'm a bit more cynical. If you have thoughts on this, please comment below - I'd love to hear from you.

17 minutes.

Show notes:

Caroline Turner is principal of Difference Works, and the author of a book of the same name.

Anne Kreamer is the author of It's Always Personal - Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace.

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

John Gerzema is the author of The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men who Think like Them) will Rule the Future.

Victoria Brescoll of Yale has carried out research on women and men who show anger in the workplace.



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, is it OK to let your feelings show at work or will your career suffer?

“So a man and woman doing the same thing, she’s going to be viewed as emotional and out of control…but a man will maybe be seen as passionate or  just having a bad day.”

And for some women, managing colleagues’ perceptions is a part-time job…

“I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

I read quite a few interviews with women executives. And in these pieces the women are always asked about advice they may have for other women. One piece of advice that’s offered repeatedly is the same one writer Anne Kreamer got when she joined the workforce in the ’70s.

“Whatever you do don’t let them see you cry. There was this communicated among women sense that if you showed any kind of emotion, you would never be considered for management, and that the only way you could rise through the ranks was to button down every emotional display and that would ensure that you’d be executive material.”

Haven’t we moved on, or do women still have to worry about being perceived as weak if we shed the occasional tear? It depends who you ask.  Caroline Turner is a former lawyer. She was also the first woman in the executive ranks at the beer company, Coors. These days she runs her own company, Difference Works – she’s written a book with the same name. She teaches businesses how to use gender differences to their advantage. When it comes to tears, though…she says there are few advantages.  

“The business world in north American and Europe, men created it and therefore its foundation is masculine norms, and masculine norms are it’s not OK to show those soft emotions.”

Now if you’re listening in another part of the world I’d love to hear from you, because at a recent event I met a French woman. She told me it’s much more acceptable to let emotions slip out at work if you live in a Latin country. But Caroline Turner is based in Colorado. She advises women to manage their tears in part because men find them awkward…

“In my workshops I ask women, you know, how many of you have ever cried at work? Lots of hands go up. And I ask men, how many of you have felt uncomfortable when a woman cries around you Hands go up.”

But she says it’s no use telling people not to cry because it’s inevitably going to happen from time to time. It’s a question of what you do when you feel that telltale prickle at the back of your eyes, that tightness in your throat. Caroline’s been there. Once she told a male boss to just ignore her tears because crying was what she did when she got frustrated. Another time…

“I literally dug a thumbnail into my palm to try to distract myself and stop. But a more useful piece of advice might be if you can’t stop it or talk your way through it, call a break. For example, I’m upset about this, I don’t want to talk to you until I’ve had time to gather myself and think about it, so I’ll call you later and re-schedule. And then you go to the ladies room and have your cry. But all that is because, Ashley, the workplace says it’s not OK. And that actually makes me pretty sad. The masculine norm is keep the emotions out of this. Just stick with the facts.”

“What I found in my research in fact is sort of the exact opposite.”

That’s Anne Kreamer again. She’s the author of a book called It’s Always Personal – Emotion in the New Workplace.

“I found that there’s no what I call tissue ceiling, that people at all levels of management reported that they had in fact had cried in workplace – and that other people viewed the expression of emotion at work as a humanizing force…as something that showed empathy and compassion, and that it was women who were the harshest critics of other women who cried in the workplace. When men saw a woman…and I did a statistical analysis with J Walter Thompson really tabulating all this…and when women saw other women cry they saw it as a personal failure, a moral failing on their part, like they let the home team down. Whereas when a man saw a woman cry at work he was like, oh, she cried, it happens. Next.”

She wrote the book in part because she wanted to work out why women felt so bad about themselves after crying at work. Her research led her to the science of tears.

“Women’s and men’s tear ducts are anatomically different. Men’s are larger than women’s so that a man and a woman might be feeling the exact same degree of emotional distress, and his eyes will only well up, whereas a woman’s tears will spill out and down her face and make her look as if she’s more out of control, whereas in fact it’s just an anatomical difference. It’s crazy. And then the second thing is women produce more prolactin, which is the hormone that triggers treas. So from the get-go women are kind of hard-wired to cry more frequently and when they do cry to have their tears be more visible.”

She too knows this first hand. In the ‘90s, she was an executive at the US children’s channel Nickelodeon. The company had just signed a big deal to distribute their video and audio products with Sony – a deal she and her team had brought to fruition.

And I was celebrating in my office with my colleagues who’d all spent 18 months putting this deal together. And the phone rang. And it was Sumner Redstone…

Sumner Redstone is the American media magnate who owns Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon…

“And I sort of naively thought oh how awesome, he’s calling me for the first time ever to congratulate me on a great job…when instead he just started to berate me instantly for having failed to move the Viacom stock price with the announcement of this deal. So I went from cloud 9 to kind of abject misery literally within the space of 90 seconds over this man’s anger frothing out of the end of the telephone receiver at me.”

After he slammed the phone down, she burst into tears. And immediately felt ashamed. She stewed over the incident and her reaction to it for hours, days. But some years later, she made a discovery.

“When I wrote the book about emotion in the workplace I went back and interviewed everybody who’d been in the room at the time - actually I also  tried to interview Sumner Redstone, who amusingly declined the opportunity to talk with me – but I was the only one who remembered the incident with the clarity that I did. One other person said oh yeah, I kind of remember that. But what happens with emotion is that if you ruminate on it…you know I went home and I was chewing over this thing, they went home and had drinks or met their their family or did whatever they did, and completely forgot about it. So that’s another one of the interesting little elements of this, is that we all take things far more seriously than the majority of people who happen to be observers of them.”

 Sociologist Marianne Cooper says there’s no doubt women have more to contend with when it comes to showing their feelings at work. Marianne is with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She was also lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in.  She says both men and women see women in a certain light, and that influences our responses to female behavior…

“It really starts form a belief that women are just inherently more emotional than men. A man and woman can have the exact same response to something but it will be viewed differently because we are expecting that women are going to be more emotional. So a man and woman doing the same thing, she’s going to be viewed as emotional and out of control…but a man will maybe be seen as passionate or just having a bad day.”

Take anger. Yale University research has shown women who display anger in the workplace lose status in the eyes of observers – these women are seen as being less worthy of a raise and as less competent. Men who get angry? They’re seen as just as competent as usual – and sometimes they even gain status. Marianne Cooper says women face a double bind…

“If you don’t show emotion in some ways you can get higher status as a result of that…but then you’re not really conforming to how people expect you to behave as a woman. So you might be penalized for not being friendly or warm or nurturing… if you’re too friendly or too nurturing or too emotional then you’re penalized for something else, which is not being competent, not being even keeled, not being calm under pressure. So it is a tightrope that women do walk.”

I asked her about crying and the advice senior women still give – just try not to do it. That is, senior women with the notable exception of Sheryl Sandberg. She says we should be able to be authentic at work. Marianne says recommending that we curb our tears still makes sense given many workplaces are pretty buttoned-up.

“…but I think, ultimately you have to understand and I’m sure all of these  women do, there are going to be moments that are just human, we’re not automatons, we can’t regulate our emotions every second of our lives. My hope would be we can work towards a system where women don’t have to  work so hard just to be taken seriously, and that that’s the kind of change we need, where when people cry it’s not perceived as a weakness, as being too emotional, or poor performance under pressure, it’s just seen as being human.”

But for some women in particular, being human, being able to be themselves at work, is something that feels a long way off. When I put out a call on a LinkedIn professional women’s group about this topic I was inundated with responses.

One of the women who got back to me was Kim Norris. She works for a healthcare technology company in the southern US. She trains staff who work in medical coding.

“My experience has been that if you express any type of emotion, even at times elation, it can be detrimental for your reputation.”

Kim is African-American and Latina. She says being half Latina, she uses her hands a lot when she talks. And she says her whole clan is pretty loud. Generally, she’s not shy about expressing emotion. But often over the years at various jobs, she’s had to tamp down her feelings for fear of how she’ll be perceived…and what she says are stereotypes about her race…

“I mean even amongst my female peers, I think that there are times when they feel somewhat intimidated or that I’m going to display aggressive behavior because I am African-American. Just the other day my boss called me into the office and wanted to discuss some possibilities for training and things like that…and she asked me my opinion and as a started to give it to her, she said now wait a minute, before you go there. And I was like wait, before I go where? I hadn’t even said anything really, yet. And that kind of thing. So it’s like, I’m constantly thinking about the whole presentation, body language, what my facial expression must look like, the tone of my voice, the volume of my voice.”

Which gets pretty exhausting. Kim got her bachelor’s degree at 40. She’s now in her mid-forties and she’s about to get her master’s in business administration. She says she’s proud of what she’s achieved professionally and educationally. Yet despite her qualifications, work can still be fraught with small, everyday communication hiccups…

“I find myself at times even not contributing as I would if I had the freedom to not have that stereotype come before me. There are times when I feel that it’s better to not say anything at all than to say something and possibly be misunderstood, so you really choose your words very carefully. And I feel it hinders me professionally a lot of the times because it’s easier for me to perhaps send an email or write a memo rather than being in a room interacting with my peers.”

At least with an email she can work out exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, ahead of time. But she wishes she didn’t have to.

When it comes to what people see as stereotypically female traits, John Gerzema says there’s good news. Or at least he believes it’s good news. He’s the author of The Athena Doctrine – How Women and the Men who Think like Them will Rule the Future. For his book he surveyed 64 thousand people in countries around the world. It turns out his respondents favored certain qualities in a leader…

“…like collaboration, sharing credit, empathy, selflessness and long term thinking. And it got us to understand that there is an emergent form of leadership that is very different from the command and control structures of the 21st century.”

A form of leadership he says that’s much more aligned with the way women tend to do things. And he insists that as a society we are heading in this direction.

“You ask any leader, you’re in a world today that’s highly social, highly interdependent and dynamic, and you’re talking about continuously engaging communities, employees, and other stakeholders, and that’s where I think these skills and competencies that people associate as being more feminine become really important tools for success.”

Including, he says, being vulnerable in public from time to time.

Author Anne Kreamer says women spend too much time blaming themselves after breaking down or blowing up at work. She says that has to stop.

“Don’t beat yourself up about it, and move on. Because certainly men are not. You know they may explode in the office and three seconds later they’re down the hallway telling a joke. We cannot continue to beat ourselves up and ever hope to find a normal balance or be good leaders at our workplaces.”

We’ll end on that positive note.  Thanks to all my guests for participating in this show.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. As usual you can find out more information about my guests and these topics at The Broad Experience dot com.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte, thanks for listening.