The celebrated tears shed by Gazza at Italia ‘90 may have foreshadowed a widespread unstiffening of our national upper lip and led us all to be much more Celebrity Big Brother than Brief Encounter, but there is still a stigma attached to showing emotion at work.
The word “emotional” is often presented as the polar opposite of “professional”, and employees are regularly told to leave their emotions at home and to respect the workplace as a temple of reason.
In my view, that’s poor advice – impossible to follow and counter-productive to try. When something consumes half your waking life, it’ll generate its equal share of emotions. Even if you manage to leave anger and frustration at home (which isn’t really fair on your family), you’ll probably end up leaving passion and commitment there too.
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And ultimately, all business is about relationships – with colleagues and with customers. And it’s frankly impossible to have a productive and enjoyable relationship with someone who’s tried to leave their emotions at home. They’ll either do so successfully and become a tight-lipped, marble-faced automaton with whom no-one wants to work; or they’ll do so unsuccessfully and jeopardise relationships by saying one thing when it’s written clearly on their face that they’re thinking something quite different.
Emotions are important and legitimate. The problem lies not in bringing them to work, but in how they’re dealt with there.
Because it’s been drummed into us that emotions are “inappropriate” in the office, most people end up conveying them implicitly, via the red face, the quivering lip, the angry stare, by the sarcastic rejoinder or the veiled insult.
Out in the open
I suggest instead that you state explicitly how you’re feeling.
If someone says something which makes you angry, don’t feign deafness or shout back “that was a really daft thing to say!”. Your anger will be evident, so try just stating explicitly “what you’ve said has made me very angry... and I’ll be happy to explain why”. If a client tells you he’s cancelling his order, rather than swallowing hard and going pale, and just saying, “okay, I understand”, tell him explicitly, “I’m very disheartened to hear that”. (And don’t then exacerbate the problem by asking “why are you cancelling?”, but instead explore possible solutions by focusing on “what do we need to do to get the order reinstated?”).
If you’re nervous before a presentation or an interview (which is totally legitimate – and a sign that you care) don’t try to hide it, because you won’t succeed.
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Your body language, your facial expression, the timbre of your voice will all betray you. Just acknowledge your nervousness openly and go on equally openly to say what else is going on in your head: “given what’s at stake for me today, I’m happy to admit to a little tightness in the throat as I start. But for the same reason, I’m also standing up fully resolved to seize the opportunity you’re offering me.” You will show strength and earn respect not by hiding or controlling your emotions but by showing you know how to deal with them openly and transparently.
Everything I’ve suggested above is equally relevant for positive emotions. If your client tells you she likes your proposal, tell her exactly how you feel about hearing that. It’ll be good for your relationship with her, and good for your own well-being.