Leadership Tutorial III (for women): When to Share Your Emotions at Work

Wearing our hearts on our sleeves at work is almost always a risk.  It can be a risk worth taking. After all, attribution research about how people formulate impressions tells us that people often like others who make mistakes and demonstrate that they aren’t perfect.  It causes us to relax at bit — to feel somewhat closer to such people because they are more like us.  That’s one interpretation of a body of work that deserves a longer explanation.  But it will suffice for this discussion.

In Lean In, Cheryl Sandberg spends a chapter on the blurring of lines between the personal and professional.  She shares several experiences where being honest about personal feelings proved to be better than hiding them.  Let me be frank.  I can tell a few stories like that as well.  But sharing emotional reasons for our choices becomes more risky with time.  When you’re “cute-and-little,” people want to help.  And many of Sandberg’s stories are from her “cute-and-little” era when, as she mentions, you remind people of their daughters.

It’s useful to keep in mind that she was at the top of her game early on.  If you are one of the far more numerous women working your way up through the organizational hierarchy, there’s a lot more competition all along the way looking for your weaknesses.

Does this mean never show emotion?  Not at all.  I walked out of a meeting after being insulted by a more senior person.  He just blurted out an insult.  I waited a few minutes, and then slowly packed up and left.  You had to be there.  I had a rule against walking out of any meeting.  But he’d gone too far.  I was upset and staying and steaming was just out of the question.  He asked for the meeting to be delayed and followed me offering apologies until we reached my office.  I stood before him and said, “If something about me bothers you that much, I suggest you tell me privately.”  He said, “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said that.  I don’t know what got into me.”  I walked into my office.

Later,  some of my colleagues told him he’d been WAY out of line.  Had he not been, I would not have left.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m a former debater and I rarely walk away from a conflict.  When humor will do the trick or a response that refers to the other person’s anger as a “shared passion for the issue,” I’m there.  But when someone goes too far, silence can be interpreted as assent. Leaving slowly, without tears or insult, has its risks.  But it is occasionally the only way to let someone know he or she has gone way too far.  You can always return to the meeting.  It buys you some time. When in doubt, leave your pad and pen.

More typical are those times when emotions are running high for personal reasons.  People around you may be able to tell that things aren’t right.  What if you’re worried about one of your children?  Or perhaps your pet is about to have surgery.  I was surprised one time to learn how many people can relate to that worry.  Or you might be having some medical tests about which you’re concerned.  Should you tell people?  A rule of thumb:  Do so sparingly.  The sympathy you get today can turn into memories of how unsettled you become over little things.  That can easily put a woman out of contention for leadership positions.

The culture of your division and company matter.  Do most people share a lot?  If so, you need to share sometimes too.  But don’t think for a minute that sharing by others means that you won’t pay for doing so yourself.  Choose carefully those people with whom you share personal feelings.  Think beyond today.  If you decide to share, consider with whom and how much.  A hint of the burden you’re carrying may be sufficient for you to feel some relief.  It certainly may be enough for others to understand and even be helpful.

Emotions are a sticky wicket for women.  As with most communication, it’s important to become proficient at sharing them before you do too much of it.  That may seem odd.  Becoming proficient at sharing emotions seems a contradiction.  It isn’t.  Not at work.  If you’re going to share, be sure you know how to do so without drenching the carpet with so many tears you find yourself mopping them up for years to come.




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