Workplace Emotion Management: Men Are Better at It?

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.

THE RAGE OF ACHILLES“Both (men and women surveyed) also tend to agree that men are more effective at speaking up at meetings and managing their emotions at work.”—Bain & Company (Australia) brief, “What Stops Women from Reaching the Top? Confronting the Tough Issues”, November 2011

“What a weird thing to pluck out of that report and focus on in the headline.”—Brisbane Times reader comment on that paper’s report on the Bain & Company brief

The Brisbane Times reader was right: It was weird that the February 2, 2012 Brisbane Times article titled “Women Struggle with Their Workplace Emotions, Say Women” focused and seized on 25 vague words in what was an otherwise meticulously researched,  wide-ranging, comprehensive and highly analytical 5,700-word report (written by four women) about obstacles impeding the corporate ascent of women.

Women’s Emotion Management vs. EQ Skills

Equally strange was that no mention was made in the Brisbane Times article, by Bridie Jabour, of the second, germane, more precise and more detailed Bain & Company report comment about women’s emotions: “Women are viewed as being stronger in the high emotional quotient (EQ) skills, such as consulting, rewarding, supporting and mentoring, by both men and women, but these are the leadership attributes that tend to be less overtly recognised and rewarded by organisations.”

What makes the over-reporting of the emotion management issue and the under-reporting of the EQ gender differences confusing, germane and revealing vis-à-vis the issue of “emotion management” is that it underscores  broader problems in defining and discussing gender differences in emotions, emotionality and emotion management.

Not Having Emotions Doesn’t Mean Controlling Them

Because the Bain & Company brief does not elaborate on what “emotion management” is supposed to mean, the Brisbane Times article took the notion in quite different directions. On the one hand, the claim that “men are better at managing their emotions” seemed to be construed as a conclusion about the degree to which women control the emotional responses that they have. On the other, it seemed the discussion morphed into an examination of and conclusion about the degree to which women have more, more frequent, longer-lasting or stronger emotional responses (which are four dimensions of emotionality the must be distinguished in any intelligent and insightful emotion research).

Interviewed for the Brisbane Times article, the study-partnered CEW (Chief Executive Woman) council member Kathryn Fagg said, “I see both men and woman being emotional in the workplace,” adding, “I don’t think women are more emotional at all, the way the emotion is expressed is different.

Read carefully, these comments are more about raw emotionality than emotion management. The difference is conceptually, even if not always situationally clear: Having emotions is one thing; managing them is quite another. Failing to conceptually distinguish these two very different processes creates the risk of misinterpreting the absence of emotion as  ((un)successful) management of emotion. However, no one should be credited for managing emotions (s)he doesn’t have in the first place. This immediately raises the question as to whether men are in some instances erroneously being credited with superior emotion management skills when, instead, perhaps they are merely “less emotional”, or even comparatively “unemotional”.

Are Men Less Emotional?

But are we men less emotional? Despite frequently hearing that complaint from women about other men (of course not about me, since I’m sensitive and special), I am not convinced that such a gender difference in emotionality is so black-and-white and one-dimensional. For example, imagine that immediately after a Sunday Super Bowl dazzling ninety-yard run and touchdown, an outta-control, whooping couch quarterback hoisting and spilling his beer turns to his bored wife and, with genuine puzzlement, asks, “How can you control your excitement? You have incredible emotion management skills! Can you get me another beer, honey?”

Unemotional male? Absolutely not. Unemotional female? No—if boredom and/or irritation are allowed to count as emotions. Yes, unemotional, if the absence of an adrenaline rush on watching a touchdown is the criterion. Interpreting her lack of emotion as emotion management?—Absolutely a mistake, if the Sunday-quarterback were to perceive his wife’s stolid demeanor and at-best indifference as emotion management.

My guess is that one reason we guys are seen by women as being unemotional is that we just don’t get turned on as much by weekend shoe store sales or drooling babies. That’s a fair characterization. However, it would be dumb to credit us with superior emotion management skills just because we look as blank as Easter Island statues in both of those situations.

Yes, there is other evidence of a gender difference in raw emotionality: For example, research shows that females are more sensitive to perceptual stimuli, such as sudden noises, swooping objects and life’s little, less dramatic perceived details. So to the extent that perceptions trigger emotions, it should be unsurprising that girls and women will respond to these more visibly than their perceptually duller, more stolid male counterparts. Test this idea: drop a tray or a glass in a cafeteria and watch who jumps or gasps. It will be the women. For sure.

So, What Did the Survey Really Ask about Emotions?

So, among the large group of women (41%) and men (29%) who thought men manage emotions better (vs. the 14%  women and 9% of men who thought women do), it is important to ask how many were expressing a belief that in the workplace and daily life

  • Women are, in general, more emotional than men
  • Women at work more frequently experience (intense) emotions incongruous (or congruent) with the demands and expectations of the workplace
  • Women manage those emotions less effectively than men
  • Women have poorer EQ-related skills than men (despite contradiction of this lattermost claim by the Bain & Company report).

These are very different from each other and lead to very different criteria for interpreting and assessing workplace performance and potential.  For example, why assume that, even if it were true that men manage whatever emotions they have better, it is a “good thing”? Suppose the emotions are positive ones, like evident delight in the success of a client or job candidate; or profound sympathy for and commiseration with unsuccessful ones. In such instances, why would “better emotion management” be an asset to the company and the employee? Seeing that one’s success truly matters to an employee can only be very good for business.

Employer Missed Opportunities Caused by Misinterpretations of Emotions

An employer who assumes that a male employee is unemotional in such contexts may be missing the opportunity to encourage him to dump his “better emotion management” skills or to apply them more selectively, so that clients, candidates and the company can benefit from the warm emotional interaction the released positive emotions can create.

Likewise, an employer who equates inferior emotion management skills with poor EQ-related skills—skills that enhance consulting, mentoring, rewarding—may completely overlook the positive contributions a high EQ/low emotion-management-capacity employee can make.

Common to both these employer scenarios and mistakes is the dubious assumption that “better emotion management” is automatically a good thing—an assumption that is insidiously and tendentiously biased by the loaded description as “better”.  Suppose the Bain & Company survey asked about “comprehensive emotion management” instead.

With that as the defining and far more neutral category, less emotion management, rather than more, could more readily be seen as corporate plus than as a minus, and survey respondents and readers alike might be much less inclined to negatively interpret the workplace emotional performance of women.

…despite possibly being more inclined to negatively interpret some of the media interpretations of it.

By Michael Moffa