Q: Uh oh, something distressing happened at work and I got emotional in front of my coworkers. What can I do to bounce back?
A: There may be one way to manage the perceptions of your emotions at work. Try to frame your emotions as “passion.” Although people would prefer a co-worker who doesn’t openly express a lot of distress at work, they prefer co-workers with “passion” over those who are just “emotional.”
People often get distressed at work. Whether it’s deadlines, technological difficulties, or interpersonal problems, sometimes it takes every ounce of composure to keep from exploding.
The problem with displaying these kinds of emotions at work is that it can frequently make a person appear “out of control,” less competent, or unstable.
However, the problem with suppressing these emotions is that it can backfire.
Sometimes, the emotions get bottled up and explode.
Sometimes, the emotions still “leak out” and coworkers are uncomfortable, embarrassed, or have poorer judgments of the emotional person.
Some researchers at Harvard, University of Michigan, and Cornell wondered whether it’s possible to reframe these emotions in ways that are more acceptable in the workplace.
In other words, can you talk about your emotions in a way that makes you seem more competent?
The researchers suggested that being “passionate” is viewed more favorably than being “emotional.”
This is because passion suggests that you are highly motivated to do a good job, and you have a personal investment in the work.
Emotional implies that you don’t have a grip on yourself.
The researchers tested this theory in a couple ways, and published the results in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2016.
To start off, the researchers simply sent a story to 240 survey-takers online.
The story is about an employee who works in an advertising firm, on a team with three other coworkers. The employee is unhappy with the working dynamic among the team, and one day the employee begins crying in front of their teammates. They bury their face in their hands.
The story then ends with the employee saying one of the following:
- “I’m sorry, I’m just really passionate about this.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m just really emotional about this.”
- “I’m sorry.
- Or nothing – the story just ends.
They also randomly presented the employee as male vs. female.
Then, survey-takers rated the employee on a few items all relating to professional competence.
The employee who attributed their distress to PASSION was rated as significantly more competent than those who attributed their distress to EMOTION, simply apologized, or said nothing.
Gender didn’t matter in terms of attribution and competence.
In this experiment, 100 pairs of student subjects were recruited.
Half of the recruits were assigned to think of a story of when they got distressed about something related to academic work, and write a few sentences summarizing their experience.
Then, those recruits were randomly put into passionate or emotional conditions.
In the passionate condition, the recruit was told that research suggests that showing passion in the workplace puts you in a good light.
In the emotional condition, the recruit was simply told that many people feel different emotions in different circumstances, including work.
Then, the recruits were instructed to write down their passionate/emotional story and then go into a room where they would tell the story to a partner across a table.
Then, the listening partner was escorted to another room and rated their partner on:
Partners who heard the story-teller tell a PASSIONATE story rated them as more competent than story-tellers who thought of their stories as EMOTIONAL.
In other words, thinking of your story in terms of PASSION (vs. EMOTION) will influence how you tell stories about getting distressed from work.
The researchers wanted to test this theory in a real-world setting.
They got 415 supervisors, bosses, and employees to fill out a survey about a time within the last 2-3 months that a co-worker got distressed at work.
Then, the survey-takers were told to “Please think about all the ways in which this incident shows how passionate/emotional this co-worker is.”
The survey-takers were randomly shown either passionate or emotional.
Then, the survey-takers rated the co-worker on professional competence.
The researchers examined not just the survey-takers responses, but the level of professionalism and rules of the workplace.
The survey-takers came from a variety of businesses: law, education, health care, finance, retail, manufacturing, etc.
Each has a different level of perceived professionalism.
Reframing emotion as “passion” resulted in increased ratings of competence across all types of workplace.
This was particularly true in workplaces with high professionalism and restricted emotionalism.
In more emotional, less rigid workplaces, the effect was smaller.
This time, the researchers wanted to know whether this effect could influence hiring decisions.
It’s possible that showing a lot of emotion might discourage someone from hiring you.
But what about showing “passion?”
They got 400 online survey-takers to read a story about a job interview:
A potential job candidate applies to a job as a pharmacist. In the interview, the person describes a time when he/she “went above and beyond” in a job. The candidate talks about a time when he/she worked so hard and was so distressed in a situation, that he/she “got choked up” in front of his boss. The job candidate described themselves as either “emotional” or “passionate.”
The survey takers then answered questions about whether the candidate is:
And whether they would choose to hire that person.
When the story described the person as “passionate,” the candidate was rated as significantly more competent.
The passionate candidate was “hired” by 61.5% of judges.
The emotional candidate was “hired” by 47.4% of judges.
Finally, the researchers wanted to get a different angle. What about passionate expression vs. suppression?
Do people rate you as more or less competent if you express your passions vs. suppress them?
They got 200 people to complete a survey on whether they would want to work as a partner with a potential person.
They gave the survey-takers three descriptions of potential partners. They said that the partners sometimes experiences distress in front of his/her co-workers, and either:
- Suppresses the emotions.
- Openly expresses the emotions and attributes them to passion.
- Openly expresses the emotions and that’s it.
- The survey takers then decide which of the three partners they’d prefer to work with.
- They also rate the partners on competence.
42% of the survey-takers preferred a partner who suppressed emotions.
32.5% preferred a partner who expresses passions.
25.5% preferred a partner who expresses emotions.
This shows that, even though passion is preferable to emotion, most people would rather work with a person who keeps it to themselves.
What’s the take away from this study?
The researchers found plenty of evidence that attributing distress/emotions to passion is a way to improve perceptions of your competence in the workplace.
This means that if you can’t help but get emotional at work, you can mitigate the damage by attributing your emotions to passion.
However, the last study provided some evidence that a stable, less emotionally expressive person is a preferred partner in the workplace.
Wolf, E. B., Lee, J. J., Sah, S., & Brooks, A. W. (2016). Managing perceptions of distress at work: Reframing emotion as passion. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 1-12. Link: https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=51400