The Crying Game: An Exploration of Emotion in the Modern Workplace

A few years ago I was chatting with my former colleague, Sara Levinson, who has been a top executive within both deeply male (MTV, the NFL) and deeply female (ClubMom, women’s group at Rodale publishing) professional environments. She asked me a funny question: Did I know any woman who had never cried at work? While I’d obviously never conducted a crying-on-the-job poll of my friends, I realized that no, I probably didn’t. And certainly I had cried, many years earlier, when I was a senior vice president at Viacom’s Nickelodeon and my uber-boss, Sumner Redstone, had called me for the first time, and screamed at me.

With that one cocktail-party question, I set off on a two-year journey exploring emotion in the modern workplace. I talked to neuroscientists and psychiatrists and psychologists and organizational scholars as well as hundreds of working Americans, but as a starting point I wanted some kind of quantitative baseline, a statistically valid national portrait of emotion on the job.

After delving deeper into the relevant literature, I discovered that while there are myriad studies looking at emotion, nearly all were conducted by psychologists or neurobiologists in small, controlled laboratory experiments. Conversely, there were broad, anecdotal digests compiled by consultants or social scientists that focused primarily on the skills that might help people to control their problematic emotions. The experimental studies were limited and unreal, removed from the multidimensional complexity of actual life at work. And the social-scientific studies tended to lack useful depth. There was nothing I could find that answered a basic question: How comfortable are Americans expressing and seeing emotions at work these days?

It occurred to me that one logical place to turn for help would be an advertising agency. After all, agencies and their research departments are in the business of gathering information about regular people’s attitudes and behaviors, microscopically dissecting that data to make it illuminating and useful, which seemed similar to what I was hoping to do with people’s real-life experiences of emotions at work.

I also knew that the kind of research I was interested in would require a substantial commitment of resources, both human and financial. The only way I could imagine getting any ad agency to play along would be if they had a client for whom emotion was particularly relevant. Remembering Kleenex’s emotively powerful “Let it out” campaign gave me a starting place.

As a former salesperson, I come from the school of you-don’t-know-until-you-ask, so I called an old friend, Carla Hendra, now the chairman of Ogilvy & Mather’s global strategy and innovation practice, to see if she could recommend anyone I might talk with at Kleenex’s agency, JWT, a rival agency, about my quixotic notion. She graciously put me in touch with Rosemarie Ryan, the [then-] president of JWT North America.

Ryan agreed to meet. Over the course of an hour we had a free-ranging conversation about the changing nature of the workplace; its general “loosening”; its feminization; and the sense that freedom to bring more of our authentic, fully emotional selves to work could be a valuable 21st century goal. She thought it would be fascinating to see if JWT’s research department could shed light on what was really going on with emotion in the workplace right now.

Hendra and Ryan’s generosity launched what has become one of the most gratifying professional experiences of my life, and helped me produce an essential piece of my book. So while the phenomenon of women-being-hard-on-other-women is a familiar truism—and one that my data confirms in the case of crying at work—there’s no question that in this instance, other women’s immediate recognition of our shared histories of tears at work created an instant community of mutual interest.

In the spring of 2009, Mark Truss, JWT’s director of brand intelligence, fielded the first of two national polls. We wanted to know what kinds of emotions were most prevalent and salient at work over the previous year. For instance, what did a respondent feel before, during and after crying, getting angry, or feeling despondent at work? Were those emotions a result of his or her work, or not? We also sought to get a sense of how respondents felt about colleagues when they expressed certain emotions at work.

Our intuitions were confirmed in some respects. Large fractions of people were anxious and showing anger at work, and women cry more than men. But we were frankly surprised by the high percentage of people who see emotion at work as potentially positive and humanizing.

This flew in the face of the prevalent notion that displaying a lot of emotion at work is a legitimate taboo. It also underscored for me that the moment was ripe to seriously reevaluate how we can use emotion more effectively on the job.

Although much of my book is about people behaving badly—with emotions out of control—my experience with the team at JWT has been precisely the opposite. The agency put its money and its spirit behind a research project that offered it no immediate financial upside and did so during the Great Recession to boot.

The whole experience has restored some of my faith in corporate America’s ability to envision the workplace, as well as research and development into it, in innovative ways.

Anne Kreamer is a writer and journalist. Her new book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, comes out this week.