At work, should you keep emotions in check?

At work, should you keep emotions in check?

As soon as I conclude my presentation, the grey-bearded foreman in the first row sprints to the podium. “You were a perfect 10” he tells me. “Until 5 minutes ago. Then you blew it.” He holds his session evaluation up to my face. Under “overall assessment,” the rating on which I base 90% of my self-worth, he circled 4 on the 1-10 scale. Ouch.

What made my final few minutes so heinous that my performance plummeted 60% to profound mediocrity?

Emotion. In the concluding exercise, participants planned ways to help a colleague made homeless by a fire. It was impossible not to be moved by the display of compassion. I was among the first to pull out a tissue. Some workers, including a few grown men, sniffled and wiped away tears.

“That exercise was unprofessional. This is a workplace. We can’t afford to have weepy workers!” the foreman roars at me. He then pivots and storms out of the room.

After a night in a dreary hotel room ruminating over my failure instead of sleeping, I emailed the foreman an apology for being unprofessional.

How pathetic of me.

No emotions, no purpose

By apologizing, I agreed with the foreman’s condemnation of “weepy workers.” This concession didn’t serve the foreman, the company or its workers.

The manufacturing plant hired me to help supervisors and managers integrate purpose into the workplace, a practice known as job purposing that boosts employee performance and well-being. Yet, not all purpose is equally compelling. Otherwise, we would rush to work every morning screeching “I can’t wait to make wealthy shareholders even wealthier!”

So, what type of purpose is most motivating and uplifting?

Scientists have shown that the most transformative purpose is “eudaimonic.” Before you pull a muscle trying to pronounce that word, here’s a synonym: “social,” as in relating to societal good. Call it what you wish, the most compelling purpose is helping others or a charitable cause.

Social purpose is so motivating that one study found that lifeguards who read about colleagues saving lives went on to work 40% more hours than those who read how work had benefitted the lifeguards themselves. Similarly, research on both sales and sports teams found that it’s more effective to motivate individuals with team benefits than with individual benefits. Another study found that those who achieve a social purpose goal experience a bigger uptick in happiness than those achieve a self-serving purpose.

For all its superpowers, social purpose has the drawback that perturbed the bearded foreman. Trying to keep social purpose free of emotions is like trying to stop your Saint Bernard from drooling. Want the warm fuzzies? Get used to a little sloppiness.

In fact, social purpose changes us precisely because it’s not a tidy abstraction that leaves us unaffected. To the contrary, helping a homeless colleague or pursuing another social purpose is so invasive that it alters blood chemistry. This natural doping makes us more motivated, less likely to fatigue, more cooperative and more likely to fight off infection. It also produces goosebumps, sniffles, laughter, high fives, awkward hugs and the dreaded weepiness.

In other words, the very signs that the foreman saw as my failure were evidence that I delivered what he and his colleagues requested: A sense of purpose.

Stemming stoicism

My mistake was not defending those sniffles and tears. A more productive email would have been:

Dear Mr. Grey-bearded Foreman,

I’m sorry you did not find my closing exercise to your liking because you “can’t afford to have weepy workers.”

I would like to offer an alternative point of view, based on recent research in psychology. It’s not possible to infuse a workplace with social purpose, and reap the associated benefits in employee motivation, performance and well-being, without employee emotional involvement. Yesterday’s show of emotion indicated that employees were in what researchers call “elevation,” characterized by augmented compassion.

In other words, expressions of compassion in the workplace are not necessarily unproductive. In fact, employee freedom to be compassionate is integral to a sense of social purpose, which you rightly want for the workplace. If you’re interested in a deep dive on the link between workplace compassion and performance, I recommend  Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations, a book by University of Michigan’s Monica Worline and Jane Dutton.

In summary, it’s likely that what you can’t afford is workers who are emotionally shackled. A little unprofessionalism is preferable to the inhumanity of denying workers the right to care. I’m not advocating that you allow disrespectful emotional outbursts, only that you make room for employees to express their compassion for colleagues, other business stakeholders and social causes relevant to your business. Again, such emoting should improve performance, not undermine it.

If there is anything else I can provide…(yada yada, you get the idea)

Even if my counter-argument didn’t reverse the foreman’s position, it might have made him question his penchant for an emotionally sterile work culture. It might have helped him evolve into a better manager.

It will happen to you as well

The majority of managers are the grey-bearded foreman. They don’t realize that a sense of purpose cannot flourish in the emotional deserts they consider efficient workplaces. They will likely squirm when your voice quivers over the injustice of denying disabled individuals equal chance at employment or when you show anger at the firm’s environmental impact. They might murmur that you’re being irrational or urge you to pull yourself together. If you’re wimpy like me, you will want to retreat.

Don’t, if you can avoid it.

Emotions fuel workplace social purpose and, thus, performance. Defend their rightful place at work. Better yet, shed a few sloppy tears during your defense!

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8 Responses

  1. It’s the difference between creating a good workplace and creating an environment where all want to contribute.

  2. Bea,
    Very well said. I work in a community college where our students are challenged with food security and lack of adequate and affordable housing and transportation. If I want my students to succeed I have to be compassionate and sometimes adapt my course requirements to life changing events that happen to our alumni.
    I will never forget how a student who had to accompany her critically ill Morher to the hospital for several weeks , turned in the last assignment at graduation ceremony. I still remember her huge smile as she pulled out of the sleeve of her graduation gown the document she owes me and gave me a big hug as tears rolled down her cheeks!

  3. I hope you wrote the grey-bearded foreman that upon deeper reflection you realized that your apology was for upsetting him, not for presenting the best way to promote productive performance and workplace compassion.

  4. So just the compassionate emotions? Sometimes I think I need to let the passion loose, too. Great post!

  5. Thank you for your blog post! I agree that we need more emotion in the workplace. But, at the same time, I am trying to figure out how you balance having effective emotion (both positive and intentional) in the workplace, and not having ineffective emotion (normally driven by reactions as opposed to responses). For example, in our department meetings, we have people that express emotion, but it is always accompanied with a lack of self-awareness and usually destructive instead of constructive. If you have any thoughts, I would be interested.

    1. Ryan, as usual, your question is profound. Where is the line? Clearly, sharing some things is inappropriate. Instead of blathering my opinion, I’m doing a deep dive for an evidence-based answer. Stay tuned for a, hopefully, valid and helpful answer.

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