The Hidden Rules of Emotions in the Workplace

By Susan David

Have you ever wasted time debating the number of exclamation points you should include in an email, trying to come across as likable but not overly enthusiastic?
Or chosen not to speak up in a meeting because you’re worried about being seen as uncooperative?
Or felt overlooked in your field due to assumptions about your gender?

What do all these questions have in common?

Continue reading to find out.

Display Rules, and How They Shape Us
Historically, education was open to men, and formal academic fields (like the sciences, mathematics, and so on) became societally coded as “measurable and male.” In contrast, fields such as crafts, the humanities, and yes, emotions, were coded as “soft and female.” Over time, this and other factors have shaped what we call “display rules.”

  • Display rules are implicit or even explicit norms about which emotions are “appropriate” for one to feel and express—and these rules frequently have a gendered component. Some common display rules include the (inaccurate) assumptions that it’s okay for a woman to be sad but not angry and it’s more acceptable for a man to be angry than sad.
  • Display rules impact every aspect of our interactions with emotions, from our parenting to our relationships (to read more about how they show up in parenting, check out this previous newsletter). Many studies show that they have also found their way into the workplace. For example, women with a reserved personality are more likely to be considered “standoffish,” (a judgment that isn’t as easily applied to men). Women are also more likely to be dismissed as “too emotional” or “overly sensitive” if there’s a conflict at work. They’re seen as “less capable” in certain STEM fields. And men can be discouraged in their pursuit of roles in traditionally female fields, such as nursing or the humanities (and sometimes feel less respected if they choose to do so).
  • Display rules run deep, and they hurt our ability to bring our best selves forward. If you answered “yes” to any of the questions at the beginning of this newsletter, you have likely felt their negative impact! (And you wouldn’t be the first!)

The phrase “soft skills” reinforces the historical legacy of these display rules. The term has traditionally been used to suggest that emotional acuity is feminine, and therefore less important in the workplace. A “good” leader, we’ve been told, should be stoic and certain, rarely expressing their feelings or admitting doubts.

A stack of pink and orange shapes is contained within one black outline, while a collection of green and blue shapes are contained within a separate black outline.

But these rules are rigid and unhelpful.

When our natural human responses to the trials and travails of work are recast as less than or weakness, it is to the detriment of all involved.

Employees aren’t robots and will eventually burn out if treated this way. Our real world experience at work actually shows that those who model caring, authentic, and emotionally skilled behaviors are far more effective than those who don’t.

The first step toward addressing these dynamics is to notice and name them. Here are some other ways you can begin to dismantle display rules in the workplace:

  • Model emotionally honest behavior
  • Cultivate greater psychological safety in your team
  • Recognize that emotional capacities are not at odds with effective strategy; in fact, they support it

We are all human. We all experience the same range of human emotions (and all benefit from being given the opportunity to effectively process them). Hurt, loneliness, rage, anxiety—they belong to our collective experience. Let’s reach out to each other from this place of commonality and understanding rather than creating more division in an already-polarized world.

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