Is it okay to show emotions at work?

Can I show my emotions at work?” This is a question I get asked often and it is actually a very interesting question. But I also think it’s the wrong one. I’ll share a much better question later. Let’s first dig into this question a little bit deeper and look at it from four perspectives:

  1. What happens if you DON’T show any emotions?
  2. What examples can we get from some of the big time leaders?
  3. What are the assumptions behind this question?
  4. What’s the RIGHT question to ask then?

1. What happens to corporations where emotions are not being expressed?

In famous still-face-experiments (you can watch an example here), children become anxious and start crying if their mother (or father) stops making any facial expressions.

The same method has been tested with adults[1]. The interviewer asked a simple question and then froze her face. And the results were shocking. People got anxious and their answers were disturbed. They started mumbling. They became clearly insecure.

When asked about the experience, they said they felt like they are saying something stupid; like they’re not meeting expectations; they started to doubt themselves; it was a very uncomfortable experience.

Now, keeping a still face may be a great tactic in a poker game or during an interrogation when you want your opponent to feel very uneasy, but why on earth would you want to do such a thing in your workplace? This way you would KILL the emotional climate around you. People would become insecure. Their self-confidence would drop. Their creativity would stop. Their energy motivation and energy levels would go down. They would withdraw from social interactions. An organization where emotions are not expressed is an emotionally dead organization.

[1] Danish documentary Experimentet, Line Friis Frederiksen

2. How do many prominent leaders relate to emotions?

If you think of famous leaders like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, one of their central characteristics is that they’re very emotional. Or take a look at Microsoft’s previous CEO Steve Ballmer – jumping, screaming, being crazy.

These leaders are extreme examples, of course.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, most effective leaders tend to be rather boring. But behind their boring appearance, they actually are emotionally mature – polite, considerate, consistent and reliable. They may seem calm, but not in an emotionally dead manner. There’s a huge difference between suppressing your emotions or being in balance with your emotions. That’s why many of the world’s leading companies (e.g. Google, Intel, Goldman Sachs) are teaching mindfulness and emotional intelligence to their people. Actually, already 22% of companies are offering programs in mindfulness.

3. Hidden assumptions behind the question

If lack of emotions is so damaging and many of the best leaders and companies are embracing the wisdom and power of emotions, why is it that so many people still think that expressing emotions at work is harmful? I believe there are several hidden assumptions behind this question:

Some people have an idea that showing emotions is unprofessional, childish, and that true professionals deal with facts only. True professionals are on top of their emotions.

Others believe that you shouldn’t take things personally. Work is work and whatever happens, it’s not personal. So, keep calm.

They don’t understand that it’s always personal. Emotions are always there. If people care about their work, then they have emotions towards it.

Many people equate showing emotions with showing strong negative emotions. Getting angry or upset. Crying. Showing insecurity. No, true professionals don’t do that.

But if you don’t show emotions at work, does it also mean you shouldn’t show positive emotions either? Would it be bad to show that you are proud of your work and company? To be passionate and excited about your job? To clearly like the people you work with? To express gratitude for work well done?

Of course, there are organizations where getting too excited or expressing gratitude is also seeing as naïve or a sign of unprofessional immaturity. But it may be that it’s not really the emotion that is the problem. There’s another thing that may explain this. Which brings us to our last point.

4. What’s the right question to ask?

Emotions are there. Always, whether you like it or not. There’s no switch in human beings that can turn the emotions off. So it doesn’t really make sense to ask if you should show your emotions or not. People see them anyway. And they’re contagious.

So what is the right question to ask?

It is this: HOW should I express my emotions at work?

Expressing emotions is not the problem. If there’s a problem, it’s in the way you do it.

Do you always insult people when you get angry? Do you behave in a way that people are afraid of you? Do you scream and jump every time something nice happens? Do you laugh hysterically so that people around you get uneasy? More times than not people are not uncomfortable because you have emotions, but because you express your emotions in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

Of course, there is not one right way of expressing emotions. It depends on your personality and it depends on your company culture. How do people express joy in your company? And frustration? There may be very different norms for different emotions.

So take a look at the emotional climate in your workplace. Then decide what you need to do. Do you want to adapt to the existing culture? Or is the only realistic option to leave and find a place better suited for your style? Or can you become a change agent for a healthy, flourishing emotional climate?

By Jarkko Rantanen. Originally published in 2017.


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