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Toil and Trouble

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of emotions in the workplace. I remember watching the movie Broadcast News years ago, and sympathizing with Holly Hunter as she sat at her desk in her office, lowered the blinds, unplugged her phone, cried for two minutes and then plugged her phone back in, raised the blinds and just kept going.

Well, I think I’ve unplugged the phone here one too many times.

This past year has been a tough one for many of us. A bumpy rollercoaster of a ride. Personally, I’ve been on the Great American Scream Machine. The most recent unexpected twist and turn was the loss of my best friend from high school last week.

What’s been interesting to me is how “together” it’s required to seem at HBS. To succeed (even survive) at HBS, you have to be outgoing enough to speak in class regularly (or worse, face a cold call). You have to participate in activities and lead student organizations (or worse, get no interviews). You have to bond with your section, go to birthday parties, do group projects. You have to read and analyze cases nightly. And you still have to muster enough energy to get up every day and do it all again. Taking a time-out just isn’t part of the game.

Is this endemic to HBS or is this just a preview of what’s to come in the workplace? I know emotions are supposed to be private. As Tom Hanks so succinctly put it in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball.” Even in my Moral Leader class, we’re discussing how much impunity from emotion our work “roles” give us.

But where do we draw the line? If work takes up 100 hours a week, when are we supposed to feel? If our jobs define who we are, what are we supposed to do when we need to take a break? When we’re full-time HBS students, how can we ever be “off-duty?”

I admit I did score off the charts on the Feeling dimension of the Myers-Brigg. But I have to believe that everyone experiences moods and has to wrestle with hiding them when they’re just not appropriate. For ambitious, work-a-holics like many of us, where does that leave our emotional states? What does that do to our ability to be good friends, family members, spouses? Do good jobs necessitate a complete subjugation of emotion? And if so, aren’t there bound to be serious consequences?

If the theory holds that emotions are simply taboo at work, I guess it’s a good thing that HBS trains us to put up a venerable front. I guess we’re fortunate to have had this crash course in feigned stoicism. I know it will surely serve me well as I have no doubt that my moods will always creep into my office along with my laptop.

But if there is a way to find a balance between seeming great and feeling lousy, I’d sure like to learn about it. That would be one case I’d gladly volunteer to open for the class.

October 7, 2002
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