Taking It Personally: Is Emotional Involvement OK?

When an employee becomes emotional at the office, co-workers and bosses usually chide, “Don’t take it personally!” The problem is many find the greatest fulfillment in their life from their job. It may not be smart to rely on your work for emotional fulfillment, but that’s the reality for many people.

A recent University of Phoenix School of Business survey suggests that many Americans are defined by their careers. In fact, nearly half (47 percent) of working adults in the U.S. gain equal or greater feelings of self-worth from their jobs and careers as they do from their personal lives.

With that in mind, having managers who treat the office as a sterile place, in which showing emotion or warmth is considered inappropriate, can cause frustration and rapid turnover. An employee also can become disengaged by a work environment in which self-expression is limited. For example, I once worked in an office in which an employee representing management circulated and assessed our cubicle decorations. I had a felt frog on a wire that I had affixed to the top of my cubicle wall. I liked the look of the frog, which I named Alfred, but I also thought he served a practical purpose: alerting people to where my cubicle was located. I was told this was not allowed, and Alfred had to resign his post. It sent a message to me that conformity was valued more than innovation and originality.

More significantly, I’ve noticed that when the company makes an announcement you’re not happy with, the expected etiquette is usually just to smile and nod rather than voice concerns or displeasure. “It’s just business,” we’re told. It’s hard to become invested in your projects and goals if it can all be brushed away with a blasé “It’s just business.” Recently, management at one of the magazines I write for asked that I no longer use a particular contributor. They instructed me to just say we put her upcoming article on hold if she asks any questions, rather than explain to her that management doesn’t want to be associated with her due to comments made at a conference. In the interest of keeping my job, I’m going along with this uncomfortable plan; however, I’m having trouble emotionally disengaging. Not only was this contributor a great, reliable person to work with, but I happen to agree with the comments that got her into trouble! She voiced disapproval for a celebration of women in optometry (one of the fields I write about) in which the focus of the speakers was fashion rather than professional matters. I’m guessing many may have silently agreed with her. She was punished for voicing criticism, and now I have to swallow my support of her or be punished myself. Like most in the modern workplace, I’ve learned to do these things and not make a big deal about it, but repeated incidents like this add up to create disengagement.

I’ve also experienced—as I’m sure many others have—sending e-mails with serious complaints or observations to managers only to have the e-mails ignored, as if the corporate culture is to ignore displeasure and concern rather than talk about it or at least give a polite, cursory response. An employee who seeks to keep her job can do nothing at that point but keep silent rather than push for a response.

Nobody wants a crazy person running through the office screaming and crying. But, on the other hand, engagement comes with emotion. You can’t be truly engaged in your work (as companies say they want their employees to be) without also investing emotion. Executives and managers need to be taught to expect occasional high levels of emotion, and should be taught to deal with it rather than ignore or dismissively downplay its significance.

Does your corporate culture allow for self-expression and reasonable displays of emotion and concern? Or do you tend to teach managers not to engage dissatisfied employees?