Go Ahead — Cry at Work

Corporate culture has long ignored the fact that we can't check our feelings at the office door. Why it's high time to get rational about emotions in the workplace

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images

I was a 37-year-old senior vice president in charge of the consumer-products-and-publishing division at Nickelodeon, the children's cable channel, in my office celebrating with a few colleagues the announcement of a huge, groundbreaking deal with Sony to create and market home videos of our hit shows, such as Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy.

The phone rang.

My assistant shouted, "Oh, man — it's Sumner! On Line 1!" Sumner Redstone, that is, then as now the chairman and majority owner of Viacom Inc., the parent company of Nickelodeon. During my three years at the company, Redstone had rarely spoken to me and had never phoned. How generous of him, I thought, to take the time and make the effort to thank me personally. Now that's a good boss. This was it: my moment of glory.

I picked up the phone, anticipating a congratulatory exchange about what a great job my team had done. Instead, Redstone, then nine days shy of 70, started screaming at me. "Do you know what you've done?" he raged. I was absolutely blindsided. I hunched over the telephone and turned away from my colleagues.

In spite of healthy media coverage, including a positive article in the Wall Street Journal, the public announcement of the Sony deal had failed to move Viacom's stock price — and Redstone was livid about it. I could practically feel his spittle frothing out of my telephone receiver. I sat there, crushed at being so undervalued for my many months of hard work, mortified to feel tears welling up while co-workers were in my office and angry at the injustice of being singled out for abuse. But I couldn't express what I was feeling. I believed that to do so would have been professional suicide. Ninety seconds after I'd picked up the phone, Redstone, without a goodbye, hung up.

The tears that had welled up during the call began spilling out as I tried to process the information. Fearing a total meltdown, I avoided saying anything about what had just happened, managing, perhaps, to force out an uninspired "Great job, everyone! I am suddenly so tired I can hardly keep my head up. How about we call it a day and all go home?" I stayed in that job for another 2½ years, but almost two decades later, I still smart at the memory of that moment.

I have since learned from several former colleagues at Nickelodeon that I was not at all unique in being on the receiving end of the chairman's anger. Redstone got mad promiscuously — and almost indiscriminately. I have also recently learned that I too made a co-worker cry, when I shot down his presentation in a monthly strategy meeting. I'm not proud of that moment and wish I'd found a better way to get my criticism across. But the goal of organizations should not be to eliminate the expression of emotions at work, which is what our dominant management paradigm tries to do.

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. In the late 1990s, psychologist Daniel Goleman identified four components of what he called emotional intelligence — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management — and presented a number of case studies showing how organizations that operate in emotionally intelligent ways can be more competitive. Over the past decade, a diffuse notion of emotional intelligence has been widely disseminated. "What I hear you saying is ..." has become a 21st century executive cliché.

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. "Traditionally, organizational behavior has only examined things people could easily see or report," says Sigal Barsade, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "But I think we've missed an entire level of analysis, which is unconscious. If I asked a man who gets cut off in traffic on his way to work and then has to make a strategic decision in a 9 a.m. meeting if the anger he felt in any way influenced his decision, he'd answer, 'Absolutely not,' when we have concrete evidence that it would. This lack of awareness can be insidious."

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