Women: Learn to Understand Your Emotions In the Workplace

2009 August 5
by Grace Boyle

Last week I was on overdrive. I had a slew of non-stop visitors staying with me, I was worried about moving and I was tired. At work I’ve been involved in some new projects that have been exciting, new and we’ve all been learning a lot. Nonetheless, frustrations ensue through the challenges.

I felt my Italian blood boiling one morning and my boss could tell. He (my boss) manages four women. We’re good friends and a strong team that works well together, hikes in the morning before work and understand each other.  I was trying to remain calm but was also honest about my frustrations.

Most of us probably spend more time at work than with our families and loved ones. It isn’t your life, but it becomes part of it. A few months back I went through a troubling personal time and my boss and best friends at work knew about it. We’re not machines, we’re human. I still performed at 100% even though inside, I was hurting and all I wanted to do was crawl into my bed and pull the covers over my head. I felt cloudy sometimes at work and I didn’t want it to affect my worklife but sometimes the line becomes blurry.

When Emotion Works

Women hear it all the time. We’re called “emotional,” and it’s a flaw that we should overcome. I believe that emotion in the workplace isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Emotion can be seen as passion and tenacity that drives success. Emotional Intelligence, popularized by 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.


Photo Credit: dno1967

Inc. Magazine’s, Nan Mooney talks about being a woman and that “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?

Let’s say at work you’ve worked on a project for months. You stay up late each night and pour your heart and soul into the project to present for a client. You present the project, competing against other co-workers’. Yours isn’t picked. All you can think of doing is crying, you’re so let down. Not every woman will react this way, but chances are you will feel dejected. Men would most likely feel very much let down, but they might react by swearing, hitting the the steering wheel, or inner rage rather than dissolving into tears. This is still a reaction driven by emotion, just different.

I’m raising my hand and admitting that women are generally more emotional than men on the job. We live in a society that encourages women to be the feelers and nurturers 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,” says Mooney.

Too much emotion can be seen as negative when women aren’t sure of how to handle emotional situations properly.

Understand your emotions

Consider understanding how you react to frustrating situations, being yelled at, making a mistake, suffering a personal blow at home then feeling it while at work, etc. Take time for yourself in the bathroom, outside of your office. Take deep breathes. I know that if I ever sobbed at my desk, my co-workers would feel compassion (believe me, some of us have cried at work) but I don’t think it should happen frequently. However, I don’t want to work in an environment that lacks compassion for the human emotion. Learning to divide between emotion, fact and professionalism creates strength. I’m still learning how to divide.

In the New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom cites the reaction of Martha Stewart in NBC’s “Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” in which a woman on the losing team told Stewart that she felt like crying. Stewart showed no sympathy and bluntly replied, “Cry and you are out of here. Women in business don’t cry, my dear.”

Penelope Trunk debunks the myth, “Don’t Cry At Work,” from her personal experience of shedding tears, working amongst men her whole life, failing and succeeding.  I’m with her. I’m not a blubbering mess, but sometimes I express myself. Trunk concludes, “So let’s just stop telling women to be men at work. No point. People who do best in their careers are people who are their true selves.”

What do you think? Should women feel free to express themselves at work? Have you cried at work or seen a co-worker cry? Does your perception of their capabilities change once you see evoked emotion?

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  • AndreaLearned

    Goleman's point “…learning how to become emotionally attuned to ourselves and our colleagues can prove a key factor in our professional success” is a GREAT one. Thanks for writing this post, Grace. I would tend to be more hardline on the” don't show emotion at work” thing, but the workplace has to get up to speed with our cultural times. Tapping into emotions can only help colleagues communicate better, and employees being allowed to be more “human” while at work could help consumer brands esp. reflect a healthier, more authentic environment. And, that's all good.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    wow, this is a really good post.

    I'm not a woman so I can speak to the gender specific aspects of emotions in the workplace. Although I have never cried at work, I have definitely wanted to, before. I was once working at an agency where, I can safely say, no one wanted to be there or enjoyed working there except the owners. there weren't even any gestures towards building a team or a culture. Constantly having to suppress my emotions, my feelings and my ethics – in order to survive – was a huge burden. I could carry it for a few weeks at a time but it would start to accumulate and want to burst out.

  • http://www.owlsparks.com/ Carlos Miceli

    I've been thinking about this a lot lately, will be writing some posts myself. But for now, I'll just say that I've never looked down on a crying co-worker. We should embrace humanity and throw away corporate values. People cry, laugh and sleep. It's ok, as long as it doesn't affect your results.

    And maybe I'm biased, and maybe I am no woman, but I don't agree with most advice Penelope gives.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Andrea I really liked Goleman's point, as well. I skirt between the line of showing emotion at work and I definitely feel like I don't portray my emotions at work like I do to my friends, in my own home. However, times do change and culturally a more authentic environment, as you talk about, can be advantageous.

    @Brett Thanks for your view on emotion in the workplace. Although this was centered toward women, I still think it's important to reflect upon the two genders. I've found that it isn't only women who want to express themselves, we just do it differently. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://twitter.com/JeremyOrr Jeremy Orr

    Last year a coworker confided her personal problems to me- her husband had left her- she was scared, confused, upset; how can you work at a time like that? I was glad that I could be there for her and she and I have become great friends. I call her my work wife and she became the person I went to when I needed to talk. I think it is so important to be aware of your emotions, not to bottle them up, get help, we are all human. As a teacher, you cannot let your emotions show in front of the kids, we have to be “on” all the time. That is why I think it is so important to have friends at work who you can go to. I know I couldn't have made it through the last school year with out my work wife!

    Great Post, Grace!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Jeremy That's also very important that you bring up having a friend or confidant on the job. I know that without my close friends on my team at work, I would have it bottled up inside of me. When people show that they care, it means so much, even if it's a small gesture. I'm glad you could be there for your work wife and visa versa! Thanks for sharing, Jeremy.

  • http://modite.com/blog Rebecca

    This is interesting. First, I think it's great to embrace being emotional and when you have a great manager, it is easy and rewarding to be yourself.

    But crying, I really think that's a different story. I'm not sure what situation you would be put in that would make you cry at work. Sure, if you got some bad news, but if your boss or work is making you cry, that's not good. It's just not my thing. And I'm a big crier. But I would never do it at work, I think it undermines your capability.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Rebecca I haven't actually cried while at my desk, at work. I have been in the bathroom (outside the office) in our building, when something awful happened personally at that very moment. I suppose I'm capping together emotions from outside of work in your personal life, which are sometimes hard to forget about and completely cap while you're working. My boss or work has never made me cry, it's the problems (deaths, breakups, loss, etc.) outside of work that sometimes creep into everyday life.

    I really find a fine line between crying at work and then being able to express yourself, which a touch of tact. It's hard. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com Elisa Doucette

    I recently experienced something I have NEVER experienced in life before. Like you, when I get upset my blood boils. I want to yell, I want to swing, I probably do not deal with it in a healthy manner. 😀

    That being said this past weekend I was chastized by a man a few positions above my own boss. I was so angry all I could do was go back to my room, sit in a hotel chair and cry. Not like breaking down emotional sobs, just a stready stream of water out the corners of my eyes while I plotted a calculated counter attack.

    I'm better now, but I was taken aback that I got that upset that quickly. Understanding and using your emotions at work is extremely important, yet for both genders it is also super important to learn how to control them and when to let them out.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elisa See, sometimes emotions swell out of you. Studies just show women express it (in general) more openly and it's a challenge. I'm glad you were able to be alone with your thoughts and understand the situation…

    I'm curious as to how you reacted? Did you approach him? Did you tell your boss? If you don't feel comfortable sharing, no worries, just curious to help others learn and see specific stories. I'm also glad everything is better now :)

  • susandunneqcoach

    I'm an Emotional Intelligence (EQ) coach, so the more written about this ,the better. It's all about taking the information emotions give us, and managing our responses to our emotions, and those of others. But basically, “if you're numb, you're dumb.” Clueless means not having any idea about the 'emotional' stuff like nonverbal, tone of voice, etc. Always great to improve your EQ. It can be more important to your success than your IQ and employers are starting to interview for this.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Susan I really like your quote “if you're numb, you're dumb.” Sometimes I feel numb, but my emotions always kick back in and I know that when in balance, it is the best way to express myself. I feel lucky to work at a small business where our emotional intelligence is honored and respected. Thanks for stopping by, Susan!

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  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com Elisa Doucette

    He's a notoriously windbaggy bully, so I was able to set myself a little straighter on the ride home. I did discuss with my boss in case I was not able to veil my frustrations as well as I thought and fortunately have his full support.

    I think he actually was happy about it (in a good/productive way.) It gave him a little perspective into me as a girl/woman with feelings and whatnot rather than the analytical no-holds-barred get things done person I generally am in the office.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elisa Bully's whether on the playground or in the office are never fun. Nonetheless, they always seem to teach us a lesson. It's also nice to show a different side of yourself to your boss and in this case it seems advantageous for both of you. Thanks for sharing, Elisa :)

  • elaineellis

    I've cried at work. I hate it more than anything, but it happens. I try to keep it as discreet as possible and then bolt as soon as I can. But I agree that it's absurd to try to be like men at work. It might not be professional to cry at work, but the way men handle emotions might be as equally inappropriate.

    By the way, your blog writing has been on fire of late. I keep thinking about your blog post about surprises.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elaine Hi sweetie! Thanks for sharing your story. It's so damn hard sometimes, feeling those tears well up while at work. I definitely don't want to show everyone at the office and when possible, I escape for a walk and/or the bathroom. This isn't always work related, sometimes its an emotion outside of work that is hard to control.

    Are you looking for some surprise in your life? 😉 Enjoy your Friday xoxo

  • http://smallbusinessgrant.info/ Sara

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Sara Thank you for your kind words. I hope you do stop by frequently. I love to talk with new visitors and readers. Enjoy your weekend!

  • http://meenalvamburkar.wordpress.com/ Meena Vamburkar

    Good post! There is a fine line between being emotional and overdoing it.

    “Emotion can be seen as passion and tenacity that drives success.” – I definitely agree. Passion and motivation are important in advancing in a career and achieving success, and that definitely deals with real emotions. Like so many other things in life, we need a balance.. and often times that's hard to achieve, or we learn the hard way.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Meena Thanks for stopping by. You're right, with any real career that you care about you will most likely be fueled by passion and emotion. Learning to balance the two would equate a strong mind and drive. Thanks for sharing :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Meena Thanks for stopping by. You're right, with any real career that you care about you will most likely be fueled by passion and emotion. Learning to balance the two would equate a strong mind and drive. Thanks for sharing :)

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  • Storm

    I have cried at work during extreme emotional duress- sick child, a death of an employee those were certainly bothersome but none as bothersome as a recent horrific event during a meeting with the vice president of operations and all of my “new” peer group. It was something i did not expect yet it came and went – thank god. I felt weak and of course furious with myself for such a ridiculous display in a professional environment.
    I am coming to terms but with much difficulty- any advice.
    Signed- new female manager in a man’s company

  • Carla

    I think that women at the workplace can become so emotional and so threatened by another womens moral and intellectual strengths, that the way you think or even the way that you express yourself passionately about things,that would promote and produce better work habits, for the purpose of company gain, women are usually affected by that, to the point where it triggers hate. Hate then in turn triggers the transfer of negative energy in the workplace.  It all has plenty to do with the strong and the weak mind.  Being able to detect fact from emotion and some people just get up in their emotions that they lose sight of the goal that needs to be put into place.  I believe that if women or humankind weren’t just about themselves or placing the co-workers or partners due to competitiveness or hateration, that we will all succeed, the company will produce a greater working environment and this will motivate employees to do their best 90 percent of the time.  Basically, it’s all about humankind not just women, taking the time to work on themselves internally, sothey can shine outwardly.  Women tend to bicker, argue and complain because they have not taken any attempts to work on their emotions and allow their emotions to control their logic in the work place.  For this reason, the purpose and the goals to produce better work environment is blocked because their emotional reasoning clouds up the mind from allowing logical thoughts to enter.  All this promotes negativity.  In conclusion, if women, were to work on themselves and think positively then there’s only energy and room for growth.  Energy is neither killed nor destroyed, it’s transfered from person to person.  Don’t let peoples negative energy affect the way you feel today.  I promote being in control of ones emotions in the workplace, work on better you yourself, to be able to think clearly and have logical reasoning and positive thought.