The Emotion Missing From the Workplace

Sadness is a central part of our lives, yet it’s typically ignored at work, hurting employees and managers alike.

Illustration of a round yellow face frowning with two pink thumbs-up on either side of it
Holly Pilot

Before a recent virtual talk I gave to an executive team, the moderator asked attendees to share in the chat box how they were feeling that morning. The answers were, without exception, emphatically cheerful: Productive! Energized! Thrilled to be here! These are wonderful feelings—but what are the chances that these responses were an accurate representation of an entire team’s emotional life? They seemed more indicative of what the Harvard Medical School psychologist and management scholar Susan David calls the “tyranny of positivity” that dominates most workplaces. More than two years into a pandemic that has revealed the painful side of reality, many employees remain discouraged from sharing difficult feelings and experiences at work, creating a culture of emotional repression that hurts workers and managers alike.

"Bittersweet" book cover image
This article was adapted from Susan Cain's new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. (Crown)

Fortunately, change seems to be under way. Harvard Business Review now regularly runs articles on the virtues of compassionate leadership. Last year, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant devoted an entire episode of his WorkLife podcast to the idea that “we should allow sad days, not just sick days.” Management scholars have even started to highlight the unique advantages of leaders who express sorrow. In a business culture that once demanded positivity, a new set of norms is slowly emerging.

The leadership researcher Peter Frost identified the problem of workplace positivity in his 1999 paper “Why Compassion Counts!” He quoted the Buddha’s purported observation that suffering is “an inevitable part of the human condition,” yet noted that suffering is ignored in most offices. Soon after, Frost and some of his colleagues founded the CompassionLab, dedicated to “a new vision of organizations as sites for the development and expression of compassion.”

In one informal project, the CompassionLab scholars Jason Kanov and Laura Madden combed through employee interviews that Kanov had conducted for a previous study on social disconnection. They found that although the transcripts were full of stories of pain and sorrow at work—panic attacks, injured relationships, feelings of devaluation—the interview subjects rarely used words related to those emotions. They were anxious but said they were angry; they were sad but said they were frustrated. “There’s an unspectacular mundane suffering that pervades the workplace,” Kanov told me. “But we don’t feel allowed to acknowledge that we suffer. We endure way more than we should, and can, because we downplay what it’s actually doing to us.”

Certain kinds of distress are more socially acceptable to express at work than others, Kanov said via email. It’s okay to openly grieve the death of a spouse or parent, but much riskier to share the struggles of a breakup, office politics, or financial worry, for example. The bereavement expert Kenneth Doka calls these losses—the kind we feel we have no permission to mourn—“disenfranchised griefs.” And according to David, suppressing these types of feelings can backfire and leave workers depleted long after they leave the office. “When emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger,” she says in a popular TED Talk. “Psychologists call this ‘amplification.’ Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator, the more you try to ignore it … the greater its hold on you.”

Creating workplaces that make space for these feelings may require rethinking ideals of leadership itself. Researchers know that the emotions bosses express affect workers’ perception of how powerful they are. Those who behave angrily during challenging situations are typically seen as more influential than those who react sadly. Yet a 2009 study by the management professors Juan Madera and D. Brent Smith found that showing sorrow rather than anger sometimes creates better outcomes for leaders, including stronger relationships with their employees and being viewed as more effective.

While doing research at the Technical University of Munich, the scholar Tanja Schwarzmüller wondered what could explain this seeming contradiction. In a series of studies in which subjects were shown videos of actors dressed as business leaders, Schwarzmüller and her team found that the difference between angry and sad leaders lies not in the amount but rather in the kind of power they are ascribed. Those who were angry were perceived as having more “position” power, with a greater ability to reward or punish others. Those who were melancholic were viewed as having more “personal” power. They inspired more loyalty among their hypothetical followers, who were less likely to want to sabotage them and more likely to “feel valued and personally accepted.”

Both types of power can be valuable, depending on the situation. For example, when an organization faces an outside threat, displays of anger might be more effective. But in other scenarios, such as the recall of a product shown to harm a company’s customers, a bittersweet touch might be more appropriate. “If followers mess up on an important project,” Schwarzmüller told Ozy’s digital magazine, “it might be good to consider saying, ‘I’m sad this happened,’ instead of ‘I’m angry this happened.’” Personal power “motivates people to work for you toward shared goals, and because they like you.”

Indeed, embracing personal power can help create emotionally healthy and high-performing workplaces. For example, Rick Fox, a charismatic former leader of a Shell oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, found that sharing his fears and shortcomings with his employees, rather than pretending to be an all-powerful boss, boosted his work performance and enriched his personal life. Encouraged by his progress, he arranged for his whole team to go through an intense training program intended to promote openness. Afterward, the guys on the rig started developing genuine connections with one another. They grew more comfortable admitting problems at work, started sharing ideas, and ended up with sky-high productivity levels, contributing to an 84 percent decline in the company’s accident rate, according to a case study by the Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely and the Stanford professor Debra Meyerson, which the radio show Invisibilia also covered.

Of course, not all of Fox’s staff relished this level of vulnerability. And for all of the evidence showing the benefits of emotionally open bosses, some studies have found different results. For example, in a 2018 study called “When Sharing Hurts,” the Babson College management professor Kerry Gibson found that managers who disclose troubles to their subordinates can lose status and undermine their influence. But much evidence indicates that as long as managers respect personal and professional boundaries, they can acknowledge that sorrow is inevitable, make space for workers to express it, and instill the value of responding to one another with compassion.

Building these practices into workplace culture can be especially helpful. In 2011, a group of management scholars from the CompassionLab published a study on the billing unit of a community-health system in the Midwest. This department’s workers had the dreary job of collecting unpaid bills for medical treatments. But this unit, known as Midwest Billing, created a culture in which it was assumed that personal troubles were a normal part of every worker’s life. Staff members cared for one another when they went through divorces or got sick. As one employee, Korinna, told her uncle after her mother’s unexpected death, “I need to go back to work because I need to work and I need to have my mind off everything that’s going on. But I also need to go back to work because I am surrounded by women who just open their arms to me.”

Sharing troubles turned out to be very good not only for mental health, but also for business. During the five years prior to the study, Midwest Billing got its bills collected more than twice as fast as before, and by the time of the study, it was close to beating industry standards. Turnover rate in the unit was only 2 percent, compared with an average of 25 percent across all of the Midwest Health System and a significantly higher rate across the medical-billing industry.

In private discussions I’ve had over the years with executives and managers, they’ve raised one recurring objection to these ideas: If everyone is encouraged to air difficult feelings, won’t this sap workers of their ability to get things done and make offices depressing? But this growing area of management research suggests otherwise, showing the value, for both productivity and employee well-being, of workplaces where staff are free to name their emotions and experiences—both the bitter and the sweet. And though American businesses still have a long way to go, managers may one day be able to kick off meetings with a call to share how everyone is feeling—and actually expect honest answers.

This article was adapted from Susan Cain’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.