Two weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion about how women can help themselves, and each other, advance in the workplace. The panel was sponsored by a major insurance company, as part of its yearly conference for female brokers, and between the three panel members we'd done everything from cocktail waitressing to working as a White House aide to climbing Mt. Everest. A good portion of the discussion was devoted to Q&A, and at one point a woman raised her hand to ask something I hear from audience members again and again.
"What can women do about being too emotional at work?"
Our responses varied from the practical -- if you're going to cry, get into your office fast and shut the door -- to the more general -- most workplace decisions are made in order to further a company or a product, not as personal attacks. All of which I agree with. But I also found myself wishing I had more time to seriously address this question, because it's far more complicated than it seems.
Professional women are frequently tagged "emotional," as if it's a flaw they should learn to overcome. But emotion in the workplace isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact the concept of Emotional Intelligence, popularized by bestselling author Daniel Goleman in the mid-1990s, emphasizes that learning how to become emotionally attuned to ourselves and our colleagues can prove a key factor in our professional success. But there's a big difference between becoming emotionally attuned and getting rid of emotional reactions entirely. Instead of fearing our hearts and loving our heads, it's time women started looking at when it's okay to show feeling at work, when we need to rein it in, and how to tell the difference.
How Emotional is Too Emotional?
You've been working on a project proposal for months, staying at the office late, waking in the middle of the night to jot down new ideas. You know your boss is considering several options for this particular client, but you really think yours is the most creative and potentially lucrative way to go. Friday is the big meeting where you and two other colleagues will present your ideas. You're so nervous you can't even manage breakfast. The meeting goes well, and you sail through the next few hours on a tiny cloud of euphoria. But as you're turning off your computer that evening, your boss calls you into her office. She says that she saw a lot of good things in your proposal, but ultimately she thinks the client will be happier going a more conservative route. You just manage to make it safely to your car before you burst into tears.
This entire scenario is laced with emotions. You're excited and passionate about your proposal. You're heartbroken when your boss opts for the more conservative route. You're frustrated that the company doesn't take enough chances. Of course you take all this personally. You personally invested hours of time and energy in what you hoped would be a knock 'em dead proposal. If you didn't feel all these things -- passion, excitement, nerves, disappointment, frustration -- you wouldn't be invested in your career. If you could just blow off your boss's verdict without caring, I'd suggest you start looking for another career because you're clearly not very invested in this one. None of this means you're too emotional. I'd venture most men would feel just as strongly given the circumstances, though they might react by cussing out the steering wheel rather than dissolving into tears.
In my varied career history, I haven't found that women are more emotional than men on the job. We may be more comfortable expressing those emotions, since we live in a society that encourages women to be the feelers and men the thinkers and doers. But being quicker to key into the emotional aspects of a situation largely works to our benefit. It means we may pick up on a client's or colleague's unhappiness, make subtle adjustments in a plan or project to please everyone involved, and -- best of all -- form more trusting and respectful professional relationships.
Where women often get into trouble is that we're unsure of how to handle such emotional situations. And this intense fear that we'll be "too emotional" doesn't help. We need to stop thinking in terms of "I shouldn't care so much" and start focusing on how to process strong emotional reactions and move on with the job at hand.
What To Do When the Emotions Hit
One word should guide you when you encounter an emotionally heated professional situation: STOP. Emotions tend to overwhelm our rational brains, clouding our judgment. It becomes far too easy to lash out at a colleague or send that snippy e-mail you'll regret an hour later. So when you're feeling emotional about a work situation, the first thing to do is do nothing at all.
It may sound clichéd, but try taking 10 deep breaths or counting the tiles on the ceiling. If you can get away even for three minutes, take a walk around the block or ride the elevator to the top of the building and back down again. Send that angry e-mail to your husband or your best friend instead of your boss and let them tell you whether you sound rational or if you're clearly about to go off half-cocked.
This cooling off period may take 20 minutes and it may take two days. When you can think about what happened without wanting to yell at someone or burst into tears, now it's safe to decide how to act or react. By this time, the situation rarely feels as dire and dramatic as it started out.
Even tears aren't always out of line. When you've lost your job, lost a big client, been yelled at for something that wasn't your fault (or even yelled at for something that was), tears are an understandable reaction. Take the temperature of your workplace. In some jobs, the second the waterworks begin you lose all credibility. In others, damp emotional moments may be acceptable. If you do work someplace where tears won't fly -- or if you're just feeling particularly fragile and know you're about to cry about something that's not all that serious -- don't work yourself into a tangle. Just make a graceful exit to your office or the nearest bathroom stall, and be sure to lock the door.
Editor's Note: This is Nan Mooney's last column for Inc.com, as she's off to write another book. Look for I CAN'T BELIEVE SHE DID THAT: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work and MY RACING HEART: The Passionate World of Thoroughbreds and the Track, both by Nan Mooney and available at bookstores now. For more information go to www.nanmooney.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.