Unmentionable & Notorious: The Controversy of Emotions in the Workplace

Do you remember that time that you were in a bathroom stall, sniffling, breathing in and out, trying to calm down…trying to stop crying. Eventually, you did, and you walked back out into your work place as though you never cried at all. Why were you crying? Did someone critique your performance too harshly? Were you demeaned by a colleague? Was it generally a bad week outside of work?

The Controversy of Emotions in the Workplace: what role do emotions play at work? A fresh look at the part of feelings in a professional setting.

Who knows. Regardless of any particular reason, it’s important to know that all of us, even the most tough or experienced colleagues at work, function and perform daily alongside his/her emotions. Maybe you’ve never actually cried at work, but you felt like it, or perhaps instead of crying you let your anger get the better of you, throwing a highlighter in the trash too loudly like a teenager. You’ve most likely experienced the feelings of disappointment, anger, competiveness, pride, accomplishment, satisfaction and a million more.

As a woman professional, I’m hyperaware of my emotions. I don’t want feelings to clutter my logic. It’s such a cliché fear for women–to seem too emotional in the workplace. Some of the thoughts that come across my mind when I’m monitoring my emotional state: They’ll discount my point if I have any tone of desperation or passion in my voice. If I’m too harsh, they’ll think I’m cruel, or worse, “b!tchy.” If I mention how rude that colleague was to me, they’ll typecast me as sensitive, or, they’ll assume I’m on my period and ignore my whacky sense of hurt.

One of the classic “keep women out of leadership roles” tactics is to spotlight how emotions manifest themselves in women. There’s specific silly, typecasting jargon used to describe the demonstration of a female colleague’s feelings: feisty, b!tchy, too sensitive, moody, paranoid, nosey, pms-ing, irrational, too maternal etc. Notice how these words are mainly used to describe females. They are like giant red flashing lights in my head, messaging warnings. I don’t want to go near one of these words, otherwise I could lose my credibility or potential to lead. In essence, the words are like permanent scars on your identity at work, banning you from areas you otherwise might have reached (a common political tactic of oppression used many times during wars or racist societies: labels that act like invisible but present leashes).

The thing is male leaders and male colleagues deal with emotions on a daily basis too. However, the form that these male-associated emotions manifest themselves are wrongly designated as traits required for success or leadership. For example, a boss who is described as tough, unyielding, competitive, cocky, doesn’t put up with b.s, a strong fighter etc. is labeled as “unemotional” and ripe for leadership.

Though these character traits are beyond welcomed in a work dynamic, in actuality they derive from emotions that can cloud judgement as much as, if not more, than a pms episode. For instance, an employee who portrays his/herself as cocky and unbreakable, though regarded as a potentially high performer, is fruitlessly depending on the prioritization of only the individual self (rather than the cooperation’s health) as well as the enablement of stubborn or close-minded thinking (rather than actively aiming for innovation).

So, while we are all humans wrestling with our emotions, it is the female-associated emotions that are stigmatized in a work setting. This stigma cripples the capacity for improvement in social systems, workplaces, institutions etc. To put it most bluntly, it backwardly condemns the potential for any form of innovation that might stem from a “female-associated trait.” Amusingly, a company that might employ and respect the elements of emotions imposed on female identity constructs like sensitivity, empathy, inquiry, patience or caution would most likely surpass a emotion-rejecting competitor’s level of success. “In their book, Leading with Kindness, William Baker and Michael O’Malley contend that corporate kindness positively impacts profits,” explains writer and doctor, Judith Sills Ph.D. for Psychology Today. She expands with her own discussion, “kindness can just as readily be a corporate cultural value, one to be supported or snuffed out depending upon the attitude of the people on top.”

The trend to avoid compassion in the workplace diminishes potential for increased acquisition. Perhaps this is what’s most ironic: What workplace leaders fear most, an imagined consequential diminishment of profits with an increased emphasis on emotional sensitivity, is actually a catalyst for loss of profit/performance potential. It’s some kind of counterproductive cultural cycle we’ve pushed ourselves into.

The Controversy of Emotions in the Workplace: what role do emotions play at work? A fresh look at the part of feelings in a professional setting.

There is a very obvious potential for mutual growth and innovative collaborations that has yet to be harvested.

In addition to compassion, another feminized emotional trait, sensitivity, is embarrassingly oppressed in a work setting. The possible benefits that could sprout from dignifying sensitivity in the workplace are totally untapped. Scientists, doctors and psychologists determined long-ago the significant abilities that a sensitive person brings to those around her/him: “The Highly Sensitive Person has always been part of the human landscape. There’s evidence that many creative types are highly sensitive, perceiving cultural currents long before they are manifest to the mainstream, able to take in the richness of small things others often miss” (Bartz Sense and Sensitivity).

The Controversy of Emotions in the Workplace: what role do emotions play at work? A fresh look at the part of feelings in a professional setting.

Therese J. Borchard of Psychcentral concurs, “The trait of high sensitivity also includes a strong tendency to be aware of nuances in meaning, and to be more cautious about taking action, and to more carefully consider options and possible outcomes.” Essentially, sensitive employees or colleagues carry the capacity to perceive incoming trends or important and nearly invisible details well before the less sensitive people around them, not a bad super power for an ambitious arena.

The Controversy of Emotions in the Workplace: what role do emotions play at work? A fresh look at the part of feelings in a professional setting.

Kindness seems to be a lucrative long-term investment…

If we should deal out justice only, in this world, who would escape? No, it is better to be generous, and in the end more profitable, for it gains gratitude for us, and love. ~Mark Twain

Endnote: I originally wrote this post for my other blog, pinkcurlers.com. It was first published there, but I think it deserves a place here on ProductiveProfessor too. What do you think?