A recent Time magazine piece discusses the role, or lack of a role, of negative emotions in the workplace:
In the binary shorthand we use to compartmentalize modern life, we think of home as the realm of emotion and work as the place where rationality rules — a tidy distinction that crumbles in the face of experience. As management scholar Blake Ashforth has written, it is a “convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action.” In fact, in the workplace we are bombarded by emotions — our own and everyone else’s. Neuroscientists have demonstrated over and over in empirical ways just how integral emotion is in all aspects of our lives, including our work. But since companies have generally avoided the subject, there are no clear protocols about emotional expression in the office.
The only instance in which we acknowledge emotion is when doing so is seen as obviously beneficial, both personally and professionally…
But we’re still largely clueless about how to display and react to more commonplace emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety, so we handicap ourselves, trying to check our human side at the office door.
As the last paragraph of the article suggests, not being able to express these emotions leaves employees as less than human. It is one thing to be able to act professional or courteous in the workplace but another to suggest that people have to bottle emotions that we all have from time to time. In high stress environments where the personal identity of employees is often closely tied to job performance, negative emotions are bound to come up.
This reminds me of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotion work.” While there are certain professions that require a public performance of cheerfulness (such as a flight attendant or waitress), this article suggests that most employees have to do some form of this. Just as Hochschild suggests, this is also a gendered issue: women are judged differently when expressing emotion.
So how could companies allow employees to express these emotions in positive ways?