Business  •  November 8, 2003

The Politics of Emotion

Expressing our emotions in our workplace is seen as unprofessional. This unspoken rule is enforced as a common sense, but has anyone ever proven that suppressing or curbing our emotions make our work environment more productive, or that expressing our emotions make it less productive? Why do we assume that it does?

I suspect that the only reason why the preferred mode of operation in business is to suppress our emotions, is because that is the way men prefer dealing with interpersonal conflicts. That is, it is an unspoken rule set by men, and enforced on women. Or, to put it in more politically correct terms, regardless of sex, the dominance of logically minded people in business is forcing their own mode of operation on others who are more emotionally oriented, without providing any evidence that logically resolving interpersonal conflicts is more productive.

I would argue that expressing or suppressing our emotions at work does not make us any more or less productive. I think this becomes partially clear if you compare Japanese and American business environments. The business world in Japan is more male-dominant than it is here. In fact, this extends beyond the business world, and into family environment. In a typical Japanese family, expressing one’s emotion in front of a whole family is condemned. Female members of a family often secretly share their feelings among each other, away from the male members. The cliché about the Japanese businessmen behaving like robots is not unfounded. In comparison to American businessmen, the Japanese are much more stoic.

This would not be a problem if the Japanese lacked emotions entirely, but fortunately or unfortunately, they too are humans. They feel the same amount of emotion that any other human beings do. It is just that they are much more disciplined with suppressing their feelings. No energy in this universe is ever lost; it always transforms into something else. Japanese businessmen end up compensating for their stoicism by binge drinking after work. As they get drunk with their friends, they bitch, morn, and cry about how miserable they feel at work. They develop ulcers from anxiety, stress, and frustration. Many of them end up committing suicide from their incapacity to cope with their own emotions. Or, their pent-up anger often manifests in a more psychologically sinister and disturbing way. As we can see from the current economic state of Japan, there is nothing to indicate that their emotional suppression contributes to better productivity. I would say that the hierarchy of logic over emotion in business is baseless.

Expressing your emotion in and of itself is not a problem. In many cases, what turns it into a problem is holding of a grudge. Grudge is a product of one’s mind, not of one’s heart. I say this mainly for two reasons. 1. Emotion cannot easily be stored or recalled. Even a great physical pain can fade rather quickly over time. We do not have a reliable mechanism to remember our emotions for a long time. Only the experiences that we mentally interpret can be stored in our long-term memory. It is true that physical memory can also be long-term, but it is nowhere as efficient or reliable as our cerebral long-term memory is. Since grudge is a long-term endeavor, it is unlikely that it can be caused or retained by our emotions. 2. If someone offends or hurts you, what you feel emotionally at first is pain. Only the mediation by your mind can turn this pain into anger. That is, the positioning of yourself among others as it relates to the pain, is what turns pain into anger. Without our egos, this transformation from pain to anger is difficult to imagine. What these reasons imply is that there is nothing inherent in our emotions that cause us to hold grudges. So, if someone is holding a grudge, it is not his heart, but his brain or ego, that is causing it.

Between the binary pair of logic and emotion, there is an implied hierarchy that says logic is superior to emotion. This is unfounded. In fact, ironically, this hierarchy is impossible to justify with logic. This hierarchy in business was established by the sheer fact that men were there first. Naturally, any one of our human facets taken to the extremes can be a hindrance to productivity. Even logic taken to the extremes can be absurd and irrelevant, and therefore counter-productive. By the same token, emotion taken to the extremes could be destructive. My argument here is not that being emotional is better than being logical. We need both to be truly productive. It is difficult to be motivated or be inspired by logic, and it is difficult to be productive purely with emotion without the help of logic. In business, we see constant efforts to curb our emotions, but we rarely see any efforts to curb our logic. This is a form of prejudice rooted in the male-dominance of our business world.

Let me be more specific. Suppose someone at work said something annoying to you. You can either express that annoyance or suppress it. If the feeling is there, suppressing it would only divert your negative energy elsewhere. You yourself would suffer for it, or someone else other than the person who annoyed you would suffer for it. Overall, your productivity would suffer from it in one way or another. Suppressing your feelings may seem more professional from a male point of view, but it does not contribute to neither productivity or to profit. There is no conclusive evidence that would prove suppression to be more professional. In fact, I have seen situations where an accumulation of suppressed feelings exploding in a devastating way. If you were not annoyed, there is nothing to be expressed nor to be suppressed, but as long as the feeling exists, you have to deal with it in some way.

You might suggest that rather than expressing your annoyance emotionally, you can explain it calmly and rationally. This is a method you could employ as well, but sharing your feelings with others is another thing that men feel uncomfortable with, and therefore avoid. Men like to pretend that they are beyond feelings, and therefore deny any need for dealing with their feelings. There are so many business processes and methodologies that deal with logic, but there are hardly any for dealing with emotion. This too is a bias of the male-dominant world.

From my perspective, most women are resigned to the way the business world deals with our emotions. They somehow go along with the standard men have set for themselves, to their own liking. Rather than resisting the hierarchy between logic and emotion, they chose to deny the difference between men and women in terms of logic and emotion. That is, women too are in support of the hierarchy. Emotion is so underrated and misunderstood in the world of business. It is the driving force of all productions, yet everyone in business embraces the view that operating like a robot is the key to productivity. In my view, it makes no logical sense.