science of us

The Single Easiest Way to Control Your Emotions at Work

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Most people have been in a situation in which they got more emotional at work than they would’ve liked: in an annual review with a boss, in a heated meeting with colleagues, or even alone and overwhelmed at one’s desk. It can feel frustrating and embarrassing to get worked up at work, though it’s not uncommon — research shows 41 percent of women say they’ve cried at work within the last year. Only 9 percent of men say they’ve cried at work within the last year, but (a) they’re liars, and (b) let’s not forget that crying is not the only way to have an emotional outburst. “Everybody experiences emotion at work, and everybody experiences the same emotions at work: Frustration, anger, sadness,” says Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor of management at UC Davis. Unfortunately, not everybody’s work emotions are perceived equally.

Men who get emotional at work are more likely to get away with it (surprise!) than women are, says Elsbach. Interestingly, men and women perceive men and women the same way — both men and women are hard on women who cry or shout, and both women and men are generally pretty forgiving (and sometimes impressed by) men who yell (or cry). The gendered nature of these perceptions has a lot to do with how we’ve been taught to understand men’s and women’s roles. “For men, being angry and expressing it through shouting is consistent with their roles as men and leaders. But for women, even if they’re in the role of leader, and shouting might be consistent with their role, it’s inconsistent with the role of being female,” says Elsbach.

It’s sexism at work, plain and simple, and while there shouldn’t be a double standard, there still is, and it’s eroding slowly. “It’s a little disheartening,” says Elsbach. “We did this data collection in the last few years and we found that there were still quite negative perceptions [toward women who cried or shouted].” So, in the meantime, what’s a person who’s fed up at work to do?

According to Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, there’s really only one consistently successful way to quell your emotions at work. The good news is that it’s an easy one: just get up.

“Say you’re in a meeting and you’re having a confrontation with somebody who isn’t understanding you, and you’re about ready to blow up, or you feel tears coming on: go get a drink of water,” says Kreamer. Importantly, it’s less about water than it is the moving. “The physical movement begins to reset your parasympathetic nerve system, and put you in a different mind-set and allows you to gather yourself so you can go back in and try to tackle the conversation with a fresh perspective.”

You might have heard this advice before, but Kreamer says it’s really easy for people to forget about it in an office context. “One forgets they have the power to do that, and it’s really hard to remind yourself,” she says. “But there are very few situations, even if you’re in a tense negotiation with your boss, where you can’t say ‘You know, I need a drink of water, do you mind if I go get one?’” Most people are self-aware enough to recognize the telltale signs of an emotional outburst — sweaty palms, racing heart, red face, lump in the throat, etc. — and that’s the moment when you have to act, says Kreamer. If at all possible, get up and walk somewhere, even if it’s just a lap around the cubicle. “Do something that allows you to change your physical relationship at the moment with that conversation or argument. It allows you to be composed.” Great advice. Easy enough for even the most genius male actor to understand.

How to Control Your Emotions at Work