From Crying To Temper Tantrums: How To Manage Emotions At Work

Have you cried in the work restroom or a meeting
with your boss? How about awkwardly try to
comfort a coworker in tears? Or maybe you’ve been
the culprit or victim of explosive, finger-wagging,
temples-pulsing anger? If you’re nodding “yes,” it’s
not so surprising. Despite the corporate expectation
to check your emotions at the door, tempers and
tear ducts continue to swell in workplaces
everywhere. We’re all human, after all.
“Since the recent study of emotion, we’re beginning
to understand that the old-school sense of the
workplace as rational and everything outside it as
appropriate for emotions couldn’t be more wrong,”
says Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal,
Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace. “In the
workplace, whether you’re pitching a new concept
or negotiating a deal, emotion is involved and
Kreamer, a former television executive, faced her
own office crying jag when she was head of
children’s channel Nickelodeon. An unexpected call
from an irate and screaming Sumner Redstone,
chairman of the channel’s parent company Viacom,
left her physically shaking in anger and openly
crying in front of her staff. Looking back, she says
not only was she furious and weepy—she was
humiliated to boot because she had given in to the
She decided to get to the bottom of how we think
about emotions in the workplace–from crying and
yelling to debilitating anxiety and frustration—and
why women feel particularly ashamed after crying
at work. She details the latest scientific findings,
the gender differences of emotion, and how we can
better deal with employees’ and our own emotions
in the office.
The Science Of Emotion
Emotions were developed as survival mechanisms
and are hardwired into our biology, just like
metabolic processes and muscular reflexes, says
Kreamer. Once, our automatic primitive brains had
to flood our bodies with hormones if we sensed
danger—a predatory animal or a snake in the road.
Even though our environment has changed, the
same biological system remains.
“We’re no longer faced with physical threats,”
Kreamer says. “Now, we’re faced with cognitive
threats. Verbal aggressiveness creates this same
flood of emotion.” The boss’s cruel criticism, a
colleague’s underhanded sneak attack or surprising
personal news delivered at the office all send our
bodies reeling, despite that our minds are
struggling to control any “inappropriate” reactions.
Why Women Cry And Men Explode
Scientific evidence shows there may be something
to the old stereotype that women cry more.
Neurologist William Frey discovered that women
cry an average of 5.3 times a month—in or outside
the workplace—compared to men’s 1.4 times, and
in a survey conducted by Kreamer, 41% of women
admitted to crying at work in the previous year,
compared to just 9% of men. It’s partly biological.
Kreamer says women have six times more
prolactin than men in their systems, a hormone
related to crying, and also have smaller tear ducts.
“So a man will well up, but a woman’s tears will
course down her face, making her look more ‘out of
It’s also cultural, Kreamer says. Women don’t feel
they’re able to express anger at work (“because
when they do, they’re called bitches”), so are more
emotionally constrained. But often that suppressed
anger is eventually released—as tears—which
leaves them feeling ashamed. “It’s an incredibly
vicious cycle,” she says. Meanwhile, she found that
two-thirds of young men believe displaying anger is
an effective management tool, even though
explosive anger has been found to be devaluing
and demotivating to staff. When men do erupt in
anger, she says they’re less likely to stew over it or
feel humiliated.
How To Manage An Employee’s Emotions
It’s important that managers understand the role of
emotion at work, what it communicates and how to
handle the flare-ups, says Kreamer. While there’s a
wide spectrum of emotion, she believes crying and
anger are most important because they have the
potential to derail an individual and team.
Kreamer advises that managers acknowledge the
behavior rather than ignore it. If an employee
begins to cry, say: “You’re clearly disturbed. Is this
a good moment, or would you like to come back
this afternoon?” If they ask to come back, suggest
that they write down what’s bothering them. She
says this type of understanding response helps the
employee feel less shame and also turns an
upsetting event into a productive conversation. If
it’s a disruptive, angry outburst, she believes it’s
important to communicate that the behavior is out
of line with the culture.
How To Manage Your Emotions
It’s important to be aware of your own emotional
response patterns and try to handle them
professionally at work, says Kreamer. If someone
insults you in a meeting and you feel like you might
cry, she recommends excusing yourself to get
some water. If you don’t do it in time and cry in
front of colleagues, call out on the behavior that
upset you. You could say: “Clearly what you’ve said
disturbed me. Could you tell me why you said
Work will feel particularly emotional in the
beginning of a career, she adds, because young
people have less experience in dealing with these
situations and greater insecurity. “Over time, if you
flex these muscles, you’ll gain mastery,” she says.
It may also help to balance out your emotions and
begin the day from a place of happiness by
regularly exercising, meditating, writing in a
journal, finding a time everyday to disconnect from
work, and creating a joyful workspace with
personal pictures and mementos. “We all work all
the time now,” says Kreamer. “We need to
demystify the role of emotion, so that employers
show more empathy and employees find more
balanced approaches.”


15 thoughts on “From Crying To Temper Tantrums: How To Manage Emotions At Work

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