Is it ever OK to show emotion in the workplace?

People often say you should separate business from feelings. But is that realistic when many workplaces are emotionally charged minefields with individuals who are passionate about their career?

I take things personally sometimes. I can't help it. And when those emotions bubble over, I have been known to be passionate with my opinion and feedback. However, expressing emotions such as anger, upset and anxiety is typically frowned upon in business, and I have found this to be the case even more so in male-dominated industries like finance.

A study published by the British Psychological Society found that while research into good management techniques often promotes openness, honesty and transparency, many leaders feel obliged to hide their emotions. This is particularly true for women.

"Female mangers need to deal with contrasting workplace stereotypes; on the one hand they are expected to be warm and nurturing, not angry or aggressive; on the other, displays of emotion, such as crying, are often seen as openly manipulative," said Edinburgh Napier University psychologist Chiara Amati.

Tackling emotional inequality

Unfortunately, women's fears of exhibiting emotion appear to be well founded. A 2015 survey from workforce solutions firm TwentyEight revealed there is significant emotional inequality in the workplace.

Women's perceived competency in their job dropped 35 per cent when they spoke forcefully or were as assertive as male colleagues. Separate research has also shown that men find it twice as difficult to recognise emotions in women than in other men.

Not only is emotion raw and real, it's so rare that people sit up and pay attention.

But this article isn't trying to place the blame on men; ultimately, they're under the same pressures to maintain a stoic facade in the workplace as women.

However, I do feel there needs to be more open discussions about emotions in business. Anyone who reads my blog knows I'm a huge fan of author and speaker Brené Brown, especially her work on vulnerability and emotional exposure as a positive force for creativity, empathy and belonging.

"Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement, " she says in her book Daring Greatly.

I couldn't agree with this sentiment more. Emotions are an unavoidable part of being human, and there is strength and courage in openly expressing these feelings – among loved ones, of course, but also with our business partners and colleagues.

The benefits of showing emotion

What does this mean for the workplace? Well, there is evidence to suggest that emotions traditionally seen as negative can actually have a positive effect for organisations that encourage workers to express their feelings.

The University of Liverpool has published research that showed anger, for example, can be beneficial in a professional environment, particularly when moral standards have been breached. The university said employees voicing their outrage when managers treat co-workers unfairly is justified and can prevent further wrongdoing.

Research has indicated that showing emotion can be a good leadership quality. Emotions are often kept under wraps in the business world. But is this always the right approach?

Doug Sundheim, a leadership and strategy consultant, noted in an article for the Harvard Business Review that good leaders get emotional. Not only is emotion raw and real, it's so rare that people sit up and pay attention.

"Emotions are critical to everything a leader must do: build trust, strengthen relationships, set a vision, focus energy, get people moving, make trade-offs, make tough decisions, and learn from failure," he explained.

However, he admits there are drawbacks to being too emotional, and this is something I definitely agree with. It can cloud objectivity, lead to impulsive decisions and squander business deals. In other words, the Goldilocks approach seems to be the best way; not too much or too little emotion, but just the right amount – and we are not always going to get it perfect. The quality of our relationships with our colleagues and partners will be put to the test when emotions run high, those who survive are the ones that are worth pursuing.

From a personal perspective, I hope businesses begin taking a more accommodating attitude to people showing emotions in the workplace. Only then can we begin cultivating business environments that are authentic, transparent and inclusive for employees, clients, customers and partners.