Women in Business

Are Your Emotions Friend or Foe?

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by Cindy Petitt

If you were asked, “What is the one thing you would change to feel more confident at work?” what would you say? One of the most common answers I get is, “to be less emotional.” I can’t help but say, emotions are good—they are your friends. Our emotions are what enable us to connect with and feel each other. But for many women in the workplace this doesn’t feel true.

Emotion as a Foe

What has made emotions such a foe for women? What comes up repeatedly is getting feedback that they are either too aggressive or defensive. Here is how it plays out everyday across corporate America. 

A key manager position is about to be filled. The promotion panel is down to two strong candidates, who both have broad experience and a track record of solid results. The conversation goes something like this:

James is very confident. He knows how to be assertive when circumstances require him to motivate action and influence opinions. 

Julia, on the other hand, sometimes comes across as too aggressive in influencing opinions and actions, and it alienates others. When she was given this feedback she overcompensated and started soft peddling her assertiveness. She is struggling to find the right balance.

You guessed it, James got the job and Julia got a coach. Julia experienced what Catalyst, a leading research organization on advancement of women, refers to as the double bind. If women stay within the norms of the female “caretaker” stereotype, they are perceived as too soft, and if they step out of that norm, they are perceived as too tough. To move up, women are encouraged to be more assertive and for so many, when they are, they are told that they are too aggressive. When they try to explain that their behaviors are no different than their male peers, they are criticized for being too defensive. 

From my observations, in many cases, the double bind is created by the emotions that are beneath assertive and defensive behaviors. In situations where being assertive is uncomfortable, often women build up their courage by justifying themselves and use their emotions as motivation. When they encounter resistance, it feels very personal and emotions ramp up. Then, there is emotional leakage. It can be a subtle facial expression, tone of voice, body tightness, or the words used that signal tension and make the exchange feel aggressive. In contrast, how often have you heard a man say there is no harm in asking or you never know unless you ask—for them it’s not personal, it’s just business with little emotional vesting. Consider using this approach to build up your assertive muscle—practice expressing your views, exercising influence and facilitating action when the stakes don’t feel so high. You want your assertiveness to feel natural and confident, not confrontational and emotionally charged.

Emotion as a Friend

What if your emotions are already triggered? Use your emotions strategically by recognizing their informative value. Here are some tips: 

When you feel that surge of emotion, slow things down. You don’t want to be on a collision course. Use your emotions as a pivot point. Take a deep breath and reflect on the situation from a third party view. This will help you to depersonalize it and allow you to step outside of the emotions you are feeling. Is it possible that the other person’s position is legitimate? From their perspective, yes! So seek to understand it better by asking questions. Come from a “wanting to learn” point of view rather than a place of judgment. Listen for what would have to happen to turn a no into a yes. Going into a defensive mode, particularly too quickly, deprives you of this learning. Learn first, defend later. 

Use your whole arsenal of emotional resources and perceptiveness to your advantage. Studies comparing the emotional intelligence of men and women have found, on average, women better understand emotions, can better predict the emotional consequences of decisions and have more empathy than men. Jump ahead a few steps to anticipate how the other person is likely to respond if you say what you are thinking. That jab may feel good in the moment, but the good feeling isn’t going to last long when retribution follows. Go for what will give you the best long-term outcome. 

If this truly is a situation where you need to take a stand, state the emotion you are feeling, explain why you feel that way and what it is that you want (from the other person, the group or the conversation). Just saying what you are feeling takes the pressure off needing to demonstrate it. This usually captures the attention of those you are talking with and has a higher probability of shifting the conversation from tug-of-war to connecting. 

The emotional range of women is a wonderful attribute; being able to experience emotions without being hijacked by them is a wonderful skill. 

Note: Double bind is not only about emotions – there are definitely many, many situations where bias is the primary factor. But this article deals with what is actionable in the moment.

Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.

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