Saying you’re emotional is about you, whereas saying you’re passionate is about what the situation is
New research suggests that if you break out in tears in front of supervisors or colleagues, you have a chance to recover. The key: reframe your distress as passion.
Most people tend to apologize in those situations, says Elizabeth Baily Wolf, a doctoral student in Harvard Business School’s Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit. But instead of apologizing for being emotional, apologize for being passionate, she advises.
Saying you’re emotional is about you, whereas saying you’re passionate is about what the situation is Wolf says, adding that being passionate is not only socially appropriate in the American workplace, but valued.
People only get emotional about things they care about, so reframing distress as passion isn’t disingenuous, she says.
Take job performance reviews, a situation where despite best efforts to hide emotions, tears are not unknown.
“If you say, ‘I’m just so passionate about doing well here,’ that’s a different conversation than, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I’m being so emotional about this,'" she says. “It’s a mindset shift.”
The “distress display” doesn’t have to be crying. It could be a flushed face, shaking, choking up, or other expressions signaling frustration or sadness. Wolf differentiates those expressions from anger directed at others.
In the paper Managing Perceptions of Distress at Work: Reframing Emotion as Passion, published in the November 2016 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Wolf and her colleagues found that those saying they were passionate after displaying distress were viewed as more competent. They also were more likely to be hired and chosen as collaborators.
Co-authors of the study included Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor and Hellman Faculty Fellow in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit, Harvard Business School; Jooa Julia Lee, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan; and Sunita Sah, an assistant professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University.
Reframing to signal competence
For the study, the researchers set up five experiments to tease out how reframing emotion as passion affected both perceptions of competence and hiring decisions. In the first experiment, online participants read vignettes about an individual’s display of distress, which they described as caused by either emotionality or passion. They then rated the competency of that person. Participants perceived those who said they were passionate as more competent than those who said they were emotional, or those who did not provide any information about why they were distressed.
For the second experiment, students at the Harvard Decision Science Lab were paired as storyteller and listener. Storytellers were asked to recount a recent time when they were distressed about academic work: Half focused on how the incident reflected their passion about schoolwork, and the other half, how the incident reflected how emotional they were. Listeners then were asked to rate their partners’ competence. The passionate group was seen as “significantly more competent.”
For the third experiment, participants, who all held full-time jobs, were asked to recall a recent time when a colleague was visibly distressed, and how that demonstrated either passion or emotion. The study also teased out whether the type of profession or relationship between participant and colleague had an effect.
The last two experiments focused on how the framing of passionate versus emotional affected decision-making. In one, participants read a transcript of a job interview in which the interviewees described themselves as getting really passionate or really emotional about work they’d invested a lot of time in. Participants were then asked whether they would hire that individual.
Would you hire a passionate candidate over an emotional one?
“ Saying you are upset because you are passionate will help you
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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]