If you’re emotional at work, will that kill your career?

Showing emotions at work

This is a pretty nuanced issue, and I’m not sure I’m going to give it the most comprehensive treatment available (simply because there are huge gaps in own knowledge), so I’ll try to keep this (comparatively) brief as a potential discussion-starter. I feel like a numbered list may be the way to go (but I could be wrong).

EQ, IQ, CQ, etc.

There was a big buzz a few years ago — and in some ways, it’s around right now — about EQ, or your emotional intelligence. I always thought this was pretty relevant. We’ve gotten to a point in 2014 and beyond where the basic work you do — the actual functions of your job — are probably fairly technology-driven (of course, relative to industry) and if you don’t know exactly how to do something on one of your platforms (say, Excel or SalesForce), you can likely Google or YouTube search what you’re looking for and see a demo.

The broader point is: the actual work is almost interchangeable in some respects, and even if you don’t believe that, you probably do believe that most people with a basic skill set of “A, B, C” can be taught to do “D.” If that’s the case, then shouldn’t your hiring focus on finding the best fits? After all, you can teach a person to use Google suite; you can’t teach a person to stop being an asshole. Don’t you want people to have empathy, to react to things, and to ultimately be the type of communication-focused individuals who might eventually be good managers? Again, I would think. So, essentially, EQ should be important — and to some companies/organizations, it truly is important.

Another aspect that’s important: ‘CQ,’ or how curious a person you are. Think about this: if you run around telling everyone that business needs are constantly changing, then why do you want people with set skills? Don’t you want curious people who will go out and learn new things and new skills when necessary?

Gender and emotions at work

The tricky aspect of this question is women. Let me say this first and foremost: I honestly believe it’s 5-10 times harder to be a woman than to be a man. Obviously pregnancy and childbirth is at the forefront of this discussion, but even beyond that, there are so many assumptions made about women, especially in an office context — that the path they really want is children (not always 100 percent true), that they’re more emotional, that they’re less rational, that they’re not decision-makers, etc. I actually don’t believe any of those things; I’m just typing out things I’ve heard others (mostly guys) say from time to time in different jobs I’ve had.

Women enter these situations with more stigma around almost everything related to their careers — which is perhaps why the journey of Peggy Olson is so fascinating to millions of viewers — and emotions is a huge part of that. So when you talk about “showing emotions at work,” most people assume you’re discussing females. Females tend to occupy less leadership positions — so if you want to talk straight correlation, one could say “The more emotional you are, the less you’re likely to rise up the ranks.” Of course, that’s correlation, which is not causation. A woman not rising up ranks and a man not rising up ranks may have very different contextual background stories.

Men and emotions at work

I’ve worked in some places that are very different contextually from a “traditional office environment,” but I also have worked in traditional office environments. I was trying to think about guys I’ve worked with who were more emotional — talking about their feelings, their life outside of the office, even reacting more viscerally to certain proposals — and what their career arcs looked like.

I came across about 11-14 examples in my head. In each case, the guy in question stayed at about the same level for 5-7 years or more, whereas other guys in their positions — who were more put-your-head-down-and-do-it/be-there-at-8-and-leave-at-7 guys — were being promoted. Again, this is a small sample size and could be a correlation rather than a causation, but I do find it interesting. It does seem to me that while the idea of “EQ” is valued, the actual concept of “emotions” (or “being emotional”) have no place in a work environment — at least in terms of potential advancement.

The narrative you develop at work

Obviously this all goes back to some basic psychological assumptions — for example, if you are an overly emotional or emotive person, your narrative will surely include questions about “being in control,” which is a prized attribute for organizational leaders. If you look at this list of qualities of a great leader, most are things that would pair well with EQ — but again, concepts like “being in control” and “guiding steadily” come through a lot in the text. Those, for many people, are not compatible with being emotional/showing emotions. Maybe this sums it up better than I can:

For the past few months, I have been hanging out with people of my age. I’ve realized they have a lot of unchecked emotions and drama in their lives. This, in turn, has made me more emotional, which has started to affect my business decisions. I have slowly started to cut these emotion-filled people out of my life.

If you want to succeed in the business world, you have to learn how to make decisions based on logic and not emotion. It’s not always going to be easy, but it’s what you have to do to make wise decisions. If for some reason you aren’t able to think straight, don’t make any decisions. Sleep on your emotions until you have a logical answer or get some guidance from a peer.

A Key Takeaway

I wrote this post because this was something that always interested me — we seem to be bad at hiring/promoting managers in business, for example, but some of the top qualities we want in leaders do positively associate with those that are more empathetic/emotional/in touch — and I’ve always wondered why logic and grit seem to be valued more than emotion and transparency.

It could be because the whole idea of “business” evolved as a boys’ club — women have only had active roles for the last 40-50 years, if that — or it could be because of the increasing shift towards quarterly earnings and now now now, which leads people to believe that decisions must be made swiftly (emotions would be seen as interfering with swift decision-making, I’d presume). I’m not sure. If anyone has any thoughts on the role of emotions at work, and what it might mean for professional development/advancement, feel free to leave ’em in the comments.

Ted Bauer


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  2. I think you are missing one piece. Emotion and EQ is important, but part of having a higher EQ is not being controlled by your emotions – which overly emotional people tend to be. When you can use your emotions (and EQ) to connect and empathize with people, make them comfortable with you, and understand them well enough to balance their needs and abilities with the business needs, you become much more effective and have a clearer ability to be promoted. As part of this, you can (and I’d argue need to) be authentic and express your own emotion – as long as you clearly balance it with the ability to make rational, logical decisions. EQ then becomes one of the inputs into decisions, but doesn’t control it.

    • I agree with you on face. I guess my concern is that a lot of people, even those with strong EQ, have a hard time with this. Right?

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