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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Emotions and Work

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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?

I've written about crying in the workplace in the past. But it occurred to me -- what about emotion in general? Is it good? Is it bad? Should it be checked at the door? Or 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.

If a workplace that is replacing powerful titles and chains of command with collaboration and teams is becoming more emotion-friendly, women certainly have at least something to do with it.

It's with the greatest caution that I commit to print the idea that women are more emotional than men. Back away from that Tweet. Science is on my side.

Women, studies say, cry four times more often than men. One possible reason is that they have had less social programming not to cry: boys and girls cry roughly the same amount until around age 12. Then the guy rules kick in.

Another is hormonal. Women have six times more prolactin -- the tear hormone -- than men. Plus, women have larger tear ducts, which may account for why women gush and men trickle.

Putting aside for the increased social and biological possibilities of women crying at work -- what about office reaction?

Opinion varies. Some would chalk it up 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.

Generalizations, all. But it's hard to deny that, for women, emotions are a field of brambles that men seem to stroll through without a scratch.

I asked a few manager-level professionals for some help on this one.

One related a hard lesson learned. Allyson is 30, capable, and has some clear goals for a career in brand marketing. "To shorten the story considerably," she said, "a project I'd been working on for six months was cancelled. The reasons don't matter -- but they were stupid. After another meeting getting nowhere with my boss, my frustration got the better of me. I cried. Really cried. Worse than that, other people saw me cry.

"They were incredibly supportive and sympathetic. They all said they understood my frustration. It wasn't until later than I found out my new office nickname was 'sniffles.' For me, lesson learned. Don't cry at work. Ever. It doesn't help. And it's always with you -- like a tattoo on your neck."

I tried to find a similar story from the other side of the gender divide, but my search came up empty. So I asked both men and women what they would think if a male colleague cried in the office. Their replies were interestingly consistent. Men just don't -- at least not about work.

Said one: "I would assume that something bad was happening in his life -- like he just had to put his dog to sleep. If it turned out he was crying because of something went wrong at work, it would creep me out."

Another said: "I just can't imagine that happening. I can't even picture it. I've seen guys fired. I've seen them get blistered by the boss at meetings. I've seen them get mad. I've seen them raise their voice. I've seen them quit and walk out. I've seen them threaten to beat the s__t out of someone. But I've never seen anybody cry."

Crying, of course, is just one show of emotion. What about others that may stray beyond the guardrails of decorum?

Avoidance 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.

So it's not realistic that we'll navigate Spock-like 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.

But 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," says Dr. Barsade, who studies emotion in organizational behavior. 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.

Her advice in a Wall Street Journal article by Dennis Nishi 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, she said, 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.

One of those stakes is the ability to handle emotions when they explode. I had a young research assistant -- very capable, but very brittle. She was a chronic crier. When I sat her down to explain why that was unacceptable, she cried.

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, she argues in a recent Monster.Com article, is to get to the source -- find the emotional trigger in an otherwise valuable team member. Go after the cause, not the symptoms.

With my assistant, it was malignant self-doubt. I worked to build up her confidence. The crying didn't stop. But it was a lot quieter.

As women change the workplace, it's fair to entertain that some of male-driven rules of emotional containment may give way. Repression may yield to expression -- especially in team-sensitive cultures that thrive on human interaction.

With caveats, exceptions and dangerous stereotypes duly considered, it's fair to say that women are -- at least -- more emotionally expressive than man. Call it socialization, call it genetics: there's a reason why women feel free to reach for the tissue box.

There is a line between appropriate and inappropriate displays of emotion in the workplace. The presence of more women may have moved the line toward freer expression. But it's still there. When emotions well up, tread carefully.

Don't let them call you "sniffles."