All professionals need to know how to handle emotion in the workplace. Since the workplace is a social place, simply doing your job isn’t always enough. You need to be able to read people, resolve conflicts and manage relationships in order to excel at your job. I recently interviewed Anne Kreamer, who is the author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. Anne is a former executive vice president and worldwide creative director of Nickelodeon, part of the founding team of SPY magazine, and a one time columnist for both Fast Company and Martha Stewart Living.
Dan Schwabel: What are the most common arguments that happen in the workplace?
Anne Kreamer: People mostly argue at work over whether they have enough resources available to do their work and whether the work is being appropriately valued. When the Great Recession happened and people were fired right and left, companies began asking the remaining half of the work force to do twice the amount of work they’d previously done with the same expectations for performance. It’s a wicked cocktail leading to unmanageable stress and anxiety. And that anxiety leads to short fuses and tempers exploding. It can be the final straw for self-control for someone has worked above and beyond the call of duty to accomplish something and that work is not appreciated.
DS: How do you go about resolving conflicts, especially if you’re a young worker trying to make a good impression?
AK: There are a couple of things that I’d suggest a younger person do to try to minimize or resolve conflicts. The first, while obvious, is to try to avoid them in the first place. Learn to take deep breaths and try to see the situation from multiple vantage points before speaking. If there is still a difference of opinion, there will have been enough time elapsed in thinking about the situation to perhaps pre-empt an explosion. If conflict still arises, don’t just brush it under the rug because you’re more junior.
Ask the person with whom you’ve had the conflict if you can set up a time to talk about it the next day. Enforcing a period of time between the altercation and talking about it will allow both sides to gain some perspective. If all fails after you’ve tried to deal directly with the situation, ask a trusted colleague how they’d handle the situation. Using someone you find admirable to model your own behavior is incredibly helpful. A “what would so-and-so do in this situation?” mantra is a powerful way to approach conflict.
DS: What are the different emotional types, how do you decide what category your co-worker falls under and what does that tell you about how to manage the relationship?
AK: In my research I developed an assessment tool (The Workplace Emotion Evaluation Profile, or WEEP) to help people identify their default emotional style. The four types to emerge were: Spouter (people who emote and wear their emotions on their sleeves), Accepter (people who believe that things just happen to them and who tend to be quiet), Believer (people who derive meaning from their organizations and ideals) and Solver (people who believe they are in charge of their destinies). People toggle between these different roles at different times in their careers and even when dealing with different levels within their organizations. How one interacts with a boss will be different from how one interacts with a peer or subordinate. Depending on the circumstance, I offer a variety of strategies in my book for dealing with various different scenarios.
DS: How do you handle co-workers that try to sabotage you?
AK: One of the most important things to learn about work is how to call people on their bad behavior. It’s far better to talk to the saboteur directly, letting them know that you know what they are doing and asking them to explain themselves, than it is to complain to others. If their behavior continues after you’ve had an initial conversation, then it’s appropriate to talk to a supervisor and say you’ve tried to deal with the situation but that it hasn’t been successful and ask for their advice or help.
DS: Based on your research, what’s the difference between how men and women handle their emotions at work?
AK: I think we all want to get smarter about recognizing the cultural pressures that shape our notions of how the genders are supposed to act, and get smarter about how we are hard-wired to respond differently. For instance, when under stress, both men and women release cortisol and epinephrine, the hormones that raise a person’s blood pressure, increase their blood sugar levels, and control their “fight-or-flight” response. But women under stress also produce significantly more oxytocin, the hormone that influences what biologists call the “tend and befriend” instinct. “From a neurobiological point of view,” Daniel Goleman (a leader in the emotional intelligence field) says, “we know that women’s brains are more replete with oxytocin, the hormone that encourages social bonding, and the more social people are, the more socially intelligent they tend to be.”
A man’s brain, on the other hand, has larger centers for action and aggression than a woman’s brain, and while both men and women produce testosterone, men produce ten times more than women. A man would therefore be far more likely to confront the interrupting jerk in the meeting – to fight the aggressor. Because of the way the male brain is wired, a public confrontation with an interrupter might ultimately give a man a positive adrenaline boost. Additionally, because a competitive environment stimulates the production of testosterone, a feedback loop can propel men toward even riskier behavior. I wish there were one easy answer to this question, it would make life so much simpler, but the truth is that the differences are complicated and vary according to age, position and the emotion being experienced.
There are basic neurobiological differences (women have smaller tear ducts and produce six times the amount of prolactin, the hormone that triggers tears, for instance, than men do) and there are social/cultural conditions that encourage women to “man up” in the workforce if they want to succeed. What I would say is that 88% of both men and women reported that they believed that the expression of emotion at work is a good thing. That emotion is now being recognized as intrinsic to all decision-making is an important step in helping each of us navigate the workplace more successfully.