Skip to content Skip to navigation
See our Campus Ready site for the most up to date information about instruction.Campus ReadyCOVID Help
Office of the Chancellor

Emotions at Work: Key Assumptions

Imagine a time when you felt an emotion at work. Were you sad, angry, frustrated or perhaps happy, excited, thrilled? How did you respond during that emotional experience?

Throughout August, we will explore emotions at work. What are they? Why are they important? What should we do with them? I hope you will join us in creating some better understandings about how our emotions show up at work and how can navigate them constructively. But first, let’s explore some foundational assumptions about emotions and work.

Assumption No. 1: Emotions are always at play

At any given moment, we are likely having some emotional experience (whether we recognize it or not). Sometimes we use the term “unemotional” to describe someone’s lack of emotive qualities or someone who is perhaps less in touch with their emotions. But at some level, emotions are always at play. This is important to acknowledge because it helps us recontextualize our goal. We are not here to remove or eliminate emotions at work; we are here to navigate and respond appropriately with our emotions.

Assumption No. 2: Cultural norms are strongly influenced by leadership

In their book Primal Leadership, Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee (2001) describe a team’s, department’s or organization’s collective emotional experience as its “emotional soup.” The flavor of this soup is primarily set and influenced by leadership. In fact, their research highlights that people tend to pay attention to the leaders of a group to take their cues on how they should respond in situations.

This is important to recognize, because when we look at the demographics of CEOs and senior executives , we tend to see patterns. For example, we see more men in leadership positions, more white-identifying people in leadership positions, as well as more native English speakers. This blog post is not here to address the inequity in existing power structures (although this conversation is important). However, we should acknowledge this context so we can better understand the norms of what is deemed professional expression of emotions in the workplace, who tends to have more influence over these norms and how they impact people differently depending on individual identity and the context of power.

Reflective questions:

  • Do you notice that some emotions are more accepted at work than others? Why is that?
  • Do you notice certain places or situations where emotions are more encouraged or discouraged?
  • How do identity and demographics contribute to the expression of emotions in the workplace for yourself and for those around you?

Assumption No. 3: We all have been socialized differently about emotions

At some level, we have all been socialized on how to show and deal with emotions. Some of us may feel in touch with our emotions and feel is safe to express them, while others may have been discouraged to be in touch with our emotions and to express them. Our socialization also extends to how we view the emotional expression of others. We might expect emotions to show up in certain places or from certain people, specifically as it relates to gender. For example, people are commonly socialized to view women as more “emotional” than men. Or we may tend to interpret emotions by women in the workplace as being overly emotional, while seeing men who express emotions at work as being convincing or passionate.

The process of socialization is different for everyone based on our identity, upbringing and through interactions with the world around us. We continue to have our socialization reinforced and/or modified as adults.

Reflection questions:

  • What were you taught as a child regarding emotions and the expression of emotions?
  • What about as an adult?
  • How does this translate into your expectations of self and others regarding emotional expression in the workplace?

Assumption No. 4: Emotions can be pleasant (not positive) and unpleasant (not negative)

This is really important for us to understand. We often say we have positive emotions like happiness or excitement, or negative emotions like sadness or anger. We need to reframe this to allow for emotions to just be as they are. Not positive and not negative. All emotions are useful and provide us information about what we are experiencing or needing. Some emotions show up as pleasant feelings and others as unpleasant, but emotions are not inherently good or bad, positive or negative.

We may respond poorly when we are angry, which can lead to negative consequences. So, our efforts should be focused on navigating our responses to our emotions, not the emotion itself.

Assumption No. 5: “Emotions are not professional” is a myth

Similar to Assumption No. 4, it Is not the emotion that determines professionalism vs. unprofessionalism. It is our response and how we handle and communicate our emotions. We can use emotions to motivate the people around us, sell leadership on our great ideas or communicate our needs to our supervisor. All of these can be professional ways to use emotions. Alternatively, we can yell at a co-worker, hold grudges or shutdown communication with people we need to collaborate with, which can all be unprofessional ways of using emotions. Whatever the example, it is not the emotion that is the problem, it is our responses to our emotions.

In summary, emotions in the workplace are complex. While we all relate to emotions differently, there are structural elements at play that determine the culture of emotions at work. And while emotions are a part of life and work, it is not the emotional experience that is professional or unprofessional, it is our response to those emotions.

Join us next week as we build on this conversation to discuss how emotions can hijack our brain and our behavior.

Luke Wiesner is the UC Merced Conflict Resolution Coach , a private resource for staff members who are interested in having a partner to support workplace challenges or conflicts. This service is voluntary, and you can partner with the coach by yourself or with fellow university employees.