How to Have an Emotional Meltdown at Work and Get Away With It

Photo of the author in real life. Photo: Nick White/Getty Images

There are times when the best of us lose our tempers at work, slamming doors or bursting into tears in view of the entire office. (Wouldn’t know personally, but I hear things.) In one moment, it feels like catharsis; in the next, it feels a lot more like embarrassment or regret. And yet, if a new paper is to be believed, there is a stupidly simple way to save face here: Tell everyone you freaked out because you are just that passionate about your work.

The researchers called this “emotion reframing,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like — in a workplace context, as the study authors use in their paper, it’s reframing an office meltdown as a natural consequence of your dedication to the job. In one experiment, for example, they showed study participants this vignette:

Samuel [Samantha] works in the advertising department of a large firm. He [She] is currently working with three coworkers on a team. Samuel [Samantha] has become increasingly sad with the team dynamic. One day he [she] breaks down and begins crying in front of his [her] teammates. He [She] buries his [her] face in his [her] hands.

This was followed by one of three conclusions: Samuel/Samantha either apologized by saying, “I’m sorry, I am just really passionate about this,” or by saying, “I’m sorry, I am just really emotional about this,” or by simply saying, “I’m sorry,” and leaving it at that. The study volunteers were most impressed by the “passionate” apology, judging the Samuel/Samantha in that condition to be more highly competent than the Samuels/Samanthas in the “emotion” or the plain old apology conditions. (Interestingly, gender didn’t make a difference here.) Four other experiments turned out similar results.

One of the co-authors — Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks — happens to be the brains behind a study I remind myself of often, the gist of which is this: Tell yourself your nervous jitters are a sign of excitement, not anxiety, and you’ll do better on whatever task it is you’re jittery about. This new research is kind of an extension of that, only it involves hoodwinking your colleagues, too, not just yourself. Worth a try once you’ve calmed down.

Have an Emotional Meltdown at Work and Get Away With It