There’s No Crying on Wall Street!

Build an ’emotion management toolkit’

From the time Plato depicted the battle our souls endure between reason and passion as two horses, where the horse of reason is an “upright and clean-limbed” white horse — and the other “with thick short neck, black skin…hot-blooded, consorting with wantonness and vainglory…hard to control” we’ve come to believe that bad things are done to us by our emotions and that good things happen for us through the discipline of reason. This POV got reinforced during the seventeenth century when Rene “I think therefore I am” Descartes imposed a mathematical rigor on the exploration of human knowledge and emphatically reargued the case for reason being the ultimate, refined tool that people have for properly shaping the world.  The industrial revolution turned factories – and then offices –into the ultimate temples of strict rationalism, as the ideas of division of labor, interchangeable parts, organizational charts, timetables and business schools were glorified.

It’s Always Personal by Anna Kreamer tries to illustrate that there is a presumed rationality and a frequently fake, superficial ultra-rationality.  Through the work of neuroscientists like Antonio D’Amasio, the head of University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, we now know that emotions are as essential to rational behavior as our strictly cognitive brain functions.  You literally can’t successfully have one without the other.

While the financial industry is noted for attracting aggressive, stronger and ruthless personalities, the profession is also infamous for late, demanding hours. Kreamer is suggesting in It’s Always Personal that at a moment in time, where the distinction between work and home life has never been fuzzier, now is a great opportunity to rethink how we conduct ourselves at work. Tough guys on the trading floor may not realize that the 24/7 permeable membrane between where they feel and where they work is slowly disintegrating. Here are Kreamer’s top five suggestions for handling emotion in the workplace.

1. Realize that emotions are neuro-biological responses to stressors in the workplace – similar to breathing or a muscular reflex.  They are our most effective early warning system that something is out of balance.  I like to think that our emotions are equivalent to the “check engine” light on our car dashboards.  If it goes off, you don’t necessarily need to get to the shop immediately, but if you don’t address the underlying reason the light went off, one day your car will stop working….on a remote highway with  no cell service.  If you feel yourself getting angry, ask yourself why?  Are you feeling threatened? Overworked? Like you’ll never catch a break? Take a moment to try and understand what is driving your behavior, what made the emotion warning light trigger, and you can then take a step back to figure out how best to address the issue.  Learn to articulate what’s behind your emotion.

2. Go ahead.  Cry. It’s not the end of the world. Two big findings came out of my national surveys.  One is that people – women and men — at all levels of management reported that they had cried at work during the past year.  This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that people who cry cannot achieve top management positions.  But tears at work are also a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears – one can cry too much or too little – there is an optimum level where tears communicate compassion and empathy.  Learn to recognize that balance.  Another fascinating insight from my research was that people who said they’d cried at work also reported that they were not unhappy in their jobs.  Crying was something that happened every once in a while and was just not a big deal for them. Tears are our natural emotional reset button – increasing our dopamine production, thereby helping to return our bodies to equilibrium.  There are many, many different kinds of tears – those of happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, pain, and joy and it’s important to figure out which kind you are experiencing and then understand what they are telling you.  Knowing why can help you deal with what triggered those tears.  If someone cries in front of you, don’t run away.  Offer them a tissue and quiet support.  Tears are a biochemical reflex, not a moral failing.

3. If you are feeling chronically anxious, try to develop something that pilots are trained in, “situational awareness,” which is the ability to perceive and interpret a variety of environmental elements within the context of a specific time and place and to then make a projection based on those observations about what will occur in the near future.  At its most basic level, situational awareness is knowing what’s going on around you.  For instance, the simple seeming act of expressly acknowledging that you know you need to develop specific skills to advance in your job can be a catalyst to help you enroll in courses to take, or request specific instruction from your supervisor.  In my experience, no boss minds helping an eager employee learn something new or develop her skills, but every boss resents having to intervene in a bungled project because an employee was afraid to be honest about gaps in her skill set.

4. Connect with an activity that nourishes you. If the stress of work and the economy feel like they are sucking you down a black hole, it’s really helpful to immerse yourself in something outside of work that you enjoy.  It can be long walks, baking, gardening, painting, yoga, or volunteering.  Any activity that is tactile and connects you with a larger world will ground you and offer a different, important perspective.

5. Use the model of someone you admire to help you through emotionally challenging times. When faced with a bullying colleague or a cranky customer, say to yourself, “What would my friend do in this situation?”  Invariably that approach will help you navigate out of thorny situation.

Follow Anne Kreamer’s blog about emotions in the workplace at Taking Your Feelings to Work.

By Tanya, Wall Street Services Reporter