work and emotion

The Business Case for Reading Novels by Anne Kreamer

This piece originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review.

I thought it was worth reposting during the summer holidays when novel reading beckons. I've been a devoted, even fanatical reader of fiction my whole life, but sometimes I feel like I'm wasting time if I spend an evening immersed in Lee Child's newest thriller, or re-reading The Great Gatsby. Shouldn't I be plowing through my in-box? Or getting the hang of some new productivity app? Or catching up on my back issues of The Economist? That slight feeling of self-indulgence that haunts me when I'm reading fake stories about fake people is what made me so grateful to stumble on a piece in Scientific American Mind by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley extolling the practical benefits to be derived particularly from consuming fiction.

Over the past decade, academic researchers such as Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness. For instance, in fMRI studies of people reading fiction, neuroscientists detect activity in the pre-frontal cortex — a part of the brain involved with setting goals — when the participants read about characters setting a new goal. It turns out that when Henry James, more than a century ago, defended the value of fiction by saying that "a novel is a direct impression of life," he was more right than he knew.

In one of Oatley and Mar's studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. "The more fiction people [had] read," they discovered, "the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and...correctly interpreting social cues." In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if "devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind," they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the "Big Five" personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered "a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities" allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects' social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.

Theory of mind, the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients — is plainly critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy. The imperative to try to understand others' points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.

Emotions also have an impact on the bottom line. A 1996 study published in the journal Training and Development assessing the value of training workers at a manufacturing plant in emotional management skills — teaching employees to focus on how their work affects others rather than simply on getting the job done — found that union grievance filings were reduced by two-thirds while productivity increased substantially. And a study of a Fortune 400 health insurance company conducted by Peter Salovey, a psychology professor at Yale, looked at the correlations between emotional intelligence and salary and found that people rated highest by their peers in emotional intelligence received the biggest raises and were promoted most frequently.

To bring the subject home, think about how many different people you interact with during the course of a given day — coworkers, clients, passing strangers, store clerks. Then think about how much effort you devoted to thinking about their emotional state or the emotional quality of your interaction. It's when we read fiction that we have the time and opportunity to think deeply about the feelings of others, really imagining the shape and flavor of alternate worlds of experience. Right now, I'm in the middle of Irene Nemirovsky's posthumously published novel about France's fall to the Nazis in 1940. Her simple sentences sketch a sense of uncertainty, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak — feelings I certainly wouldn't want to dwell on in "real" life, but emotions I'm better off for having taken the time to consider.

But nourishing empathy doesn't require such grimness. And if you want your diet of fiction, as it's shaping your mind to be more emotionally acute, to be specifically relevant to work, there is a body of great literature about business and organizational behavior. For instance, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, inspired by 19th century financial scandals among the British elite, resonates powerfully today. In his autobiography, Trollope wrote that "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now." Seems fairly au courant to me.

From now on, I'm going to feel less like an escapist slacker when I'm engrossed in a new novel. In addition to the Trollope, below are some of my favorite books to get you started.

Kurt Andersen, Turn of the Century — set in 2000 and 2001, a successful TV producer husband and digital entrepreneur wife, trying to balance the demands of work and life, wind up pitted against each other as executives in a U.S. media empire. His mistrust grows when she becomes a favorite of the Rupert Murdoch-like chairman. Meanwhile, their hedge-fund-manager best friend is involved in big-time stock manipulation. (Full disclosure: my husband is the author)

Jane Austen, Sandition — in this unfinished fragment of a novel, Austen departs from her typical marriage plot to describe the zealous entrepreneurialism of a real estate speculator. While we can never know how the novel would have ended, we can be pretty sure his housing bubble will burst.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House — Dickens' tenth novel explores the human cost of prolonged litigation through the eyes of Esther Summerson, who is caught up in a multi-generational dispute over the disposition over an inheritance. Anyone who has ever been entangled in a lawsuit will revel in the characterization of the process. At the time of publication, 1852–1853, public outrage over injustice in the English legal system helped the novel to spark legal reform that culminated in the 1870s.

William Gaddis, JR — in the 1976 National Book Award winner, the 11-year old protagonist, JR, secretly trades penny stocks, using the tools of the trade at the time — money orders and payphones — to build a fortune. Written entirely in dialogue, the absurdity of a precocious child's feat satirizes as Gaddis put it, "the American dream turned inside out." His description of dysfunctional boards and the corrosive effect of corporate takeovers and asset stripping are as current today as they were 30 years ago.

Joseph Heller, Something Happened — Heller's stream of consciousness second novel follows a regular-joe middle manager as he prepares for a promotion. The messy interweaving of his thoughts about his job, family, sex, and childhood perfectly distill how complicated the selves we bring to work really are.

What I Learned From the "Homeless Hotspots" Twitter Furor by Anne Kreamer

When Emma Cookson, the Chairman of the New York branch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), an award-winning ad agency, and her team concocted an innovative marketing program called Homeless Hotspots, they genuinely had no sense of the furor that they'd be facing when the project launched.The Homeless Hotspots program was meant to serve the needs of the super digerati who attend the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. Inspired by the established model of homeless people earning money by selling homelessness-focused newspapers, BBH's idea was for homeless people, wearing T-shirts printed with their names and identifying themselves as 4G hotspots, to sell connectivity (an issue for conference attendees) by means of small handheld Wi-Fi routers.

Bad early-March weather kept the program mostly invisible until the third day of SXSW, when appalled commentary began to roil the Twitterverse. Cookson found herself in the unexpected position of having to react to a media tsunami — fast.

I sat down with her to explore what she learned from the experience, which she was able to distill into five lessons:

# 1. Comment Precedes Knowledge

As Cookson was putting her kids to bed the evening of Sunday, March 11 in her Brooklyn home, her Tweetdeck started "blinking very loudly," with her team on the ground in Austin alerting her that something alarming was going on. Individuals had begun negative tweets about Hotspots that cascaded into a cycle of news stories (See articles from ReadWriteWeb, The New York Times and Wired) and what started out as a small brush fire suddenly scaled up to a full-blown firestorm. The speed at which it all happened was unprecedented, given that it was generated by the tech community gathered at SXSW, and not some other big gathering.

With the event now solidly in her rearview mirror, what does Cookson understand about the situation that she didn't know at the time? "I don't think I realized how large the volume of comments without information could be," she says. "The overall effect during the first 24 hours was a very big and very noisy, but largely empty echo chamber. Most of the initial commentary got all of the facts wrong. Nobody knew that all the money (a daily minimum of $50 for up to six hours of work) was going to the participants themselves, nobody knew there was no sponsor or brand connected to the program, nobody knew how the participants felt — there were a number of pieces of missing information."

#2. You Get One Chance to React

On Monday morning, Cookson was looking at a voluminous and overwhelmingly negative set of public comments. "Obviously, the big question for us," Cookson says, "was how do you face that first storm? Do you just stop, exit and apologize? Or, do you carry on and try to explain? We had to make that call really early on — and it's a big call, because once you act on the decision, you can't go back. We decided that we needed to address the comments head-on."

#3. With New Facts and Openness, The Story Can Change

"The reason why I chose to continue," she says, "is because we thought there was a new perspective to bring to bear." Cookson knew, for instance, that nobody had actually heard from the homeless participants whose voices were going to be credible and powerful. Participants like Clarence Jones, a 54-year-old homeless survivor of Hurricane Katrina, or Jonathan Hill II, who reported that he liked being a hotspot better than "his usual work doing manual labor at music venues, largely because it offered him a chance to talk to some of the thousands of the attendees at the program, who normally ignore the roughly 6,000-strong homeless population in Austin."

Cookson describes a clear trajectory in the coverage and believes that, unlike some big corporation with a crisis management team, BBH's decision to talk to everyone proved helpful, finding "that in one-on-one conversations, people were almost always positive." She adds, "What started off on Sunday as primarily negative was by Tuesday hotly debated with new pieces like those on The Atlantic Wire or NPR's Talk of the Nation, where the majority of the call-in comments during the show were supportive and recognized the delicate tension between empowerment and exploitation. It was still a controversial story, but much more balanced. I'd say we made the right decision."

#4. It's Not Just What You Say, It's How You Say It

Cookson says they made a deliberate decision in the planning stages of Homeless Hotspots that they needed to make the fact that the participants were homeless apparent upfront in the name — thus, Homeless Hotspots. "But," she says, "it's not a surprise to someone who works in advertising that what people respond to is not just what you say but how you say it. I work in the communications industry — the execution, the style and the expression are a vast part of what people respond to. The T-shirt message was received very differently when stripped from its original context and broadcast as tweets."

#5. There's Real Value in Clear Leadership

One of Cookson's big lessons was in experiencing the value of her corporate culture through the prism of a crisis. There was a small team of people involved, but she was the decision-maker. "While I was facing an extremely high-volume challenge and criticism externally, I realized after a while that I wasn't facing criticism internally. When the story went big on Sunday night, I e-mailed the global leadership to tell them what was happening and what we were doing about it, but then, I was pretty much left to manage it. What I didn't have — that I think many companies would have had — was any internal challenging or questioning of my judgment." Cookson says that not having to deal with that bureaucratic operational complexity was really critical, because it was a very fast-moving situation. "If' I'd had to keep reporting back, it would have been disabling, and it would have been further disabling if I'd been distracted by a worry that I or my team was being judged internally. We talk about needing to embrace risk to do fresh, innovative stuff," she says, "and this was a living embodiment. Lots of companies talk about embracing risk but don't mean it. How we reacted was a validation that we meant it."

What Would You Do Differently Knowing What You Know Now?

Cookson says she still finds it hard to answer the question of whether she would do anything differently in hindsight, and has thought a lot about how controversy drove the story. Businesses generally don't like controversy, but to Cookson, Homeless Hotspots proved that controversy has enormous power — driving the comments, the outrage, and the conversation. "If you ever need to get a message through, controversy cuts through like nothing else." Then, of course, you have to judge the costs and benefits, deciding whether you want to endure the downside in order to get the upside.

Also posted June 18th, 2012 on the Harvard Business Review HBR Blog Network

Workers, Take Off Your Headphones by Anne Kreamer

Technology, for a free-lancer like me, creates a powerful and not entirely mad illusion that we work in a peopled environment of rich diversity and experience. As I sit to write each morning, I draw upon the vast network of people (many in active chat windows) with whom I've worked in the trenches over the course of a 35-year career, while also having the benefit of opinions and insight by expert strangers a click away. I sometimes even wear earplugs that allow me to immerse more deeply into my subject matter, creating a bubble that blunts distractions and sharpens my focus. For me, it's the best of both worlds. Alone, and yet truly interacting with people, even if they are across town or in a different country.


But what about younger people just entering a traditional office environment? The necessary and artful tango between inner-directed and outward-focused, first chronicled in David Reisman's landmark 1950 book The Lonely Crowd, has been problematically transformed by technology. There's a new lonely crowd in the workplace.

My informal survey of a dozen people I know under the age of 35, working in a range of desk jobs, all in the U.S. — law firms, big entertainment companies, small start-ups, publishing houses — revealed that whatever the design of their office spaces, most younger people in our increasingly post-telephonic office world wear headphones about half of the time they're working. And all but one of those I interviewed said that they had at least one G-chat or Skype window open throughout the day, every day — some of them checking in with as many as five non-work friends or family members every hour. And the majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers — the nearby colleagues, including bosses, with whom they communicate primarily through e-mails or chat programs.

This is very much a new world with myriad legal and security issues for both employer and employees, which are beyond the scope of this post. My focus, rather, is on the profound impact these new 21st century forms of divided attentions and isolation have on the psychology of individuals and company cultures, how they make people more than ever all alone among a group of nominal comrades.

Missing out on opportunities to contribute and advance

One person with whom I spoke told me that "wearing headphones actually makes me feel anxious a lot of the time, because I'm always worried that someone might ask me a question or say something to me and I'll miss it." This person is right to be concerned. Over the course of my earlier professional incarnations I worked in mission-driven organizations with more or less open office plans — Sesame Street, SPY magazine, Nickelodeon — where much of our successes were driven by the invisible but powerful sense of shared purpose generated by the news and information that was simply overheard. If I'd had headphones on, exclusively aware of the work in front of me, I would have missed out on important details, let alone the collective high that was experienced when a good piece of news rippled through. The more I participated in the ambient, informal life of the office, the more committed I became to the work of the company. A company spirit formed and evolved, and I shared in it unconsciously and consciously.

These days, by contrast, as one young interviewee put it, "usually whoever is talking to me will make sure they get my attention if I didn't seem to hear the first time. I've never missed something urgent, usually just part of a conversation that was going on in the office." Precisely. It's just that kind of loss of daily osmotic information exchange and collaborative bonding that ought to concern 21st century employees and employers. It's about information exchange, resource exchange, idea generation and on and on. If an employee is glued to her desk with headphones on, immersed in music and G-chatting with her best buddy, she is missing the opportunity to create relationships with people on the job who might be launching a project for which she'd be perfect, or who's kicking around the idea to launch a new firm that needs precisely her talents. It's a huge and real loss in terms of career development.

Companies also lose some of the opportunity to have employees contribute new ideas that might be percolating within the larger culture but under the radar of the organization. Because actionable cultural knowledge is now so diffuse, to remain competitive companies need all employees to bring fresh thinking into the workplace. Imagine an employee who happened, say, to be the roommate of someone launching a startup in 2010, and missed out on overhearing a colleague ask if "anyone knows anything about this new app that colorizes photographs so they look old-fashioned" — extreme, yes, but even short of missing out on an early partnership with Instagram, every company must be configured to into tap a workforce's collective informal knowledge base as much as possible.

Eroding employee loyalty

The image of legions of headphone-wearing employees sitting silently at their workstations, oblivious to the flesh-and-blood community around them but actively engaged with a virtual world, seems like a dystopian future envisioned in movies like Minority Report. But that future is here. A Wall Street Journal piece on the "officeless office" had a sidebar with six new rules for office etiquette which included #1, no sneaking up; #5, limit chit-chat; and #6 use headphones. That may increase a certain kind of productivity, but at what cost?

Management professors Sigal Barsade at Wharton and Hakan Ozcelik at Cal State Sacramento are among the pioneers in studying how employee isolation correlates with organizational outcomes. In a recent study, they found "because they feel more estranged and less connected to coworkers, lonelier employees will be more likely to experience a lack of belongingness at work, thus decreasing their affective commitment to their organizations." Something to think about before you decide to limit social chit-chat or put those headphones back on.

A drain on innovation

Isaac Kohane, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, has studied if and how scientists benefit from close physical adjacencies at work.

Even though scientific research obviously has been enhanced by internet connectedness (the web, after all, began 23 years ago as a vehicle for scientific collaboration), Kohane and his researchers found "striking evidence for the role of physical proximity as a predictor of the impact of collaborations." As Kyungjoon Lee, a research assistant on the study put it, "science is all about communicating your ideas so others can build on them." It seems obvious to me that not just science but most professional pursuits significantly benefit from this kind of perpetual accidental physical-world collaboration. But as my interviews revealed, when we put on our headphones and fire up our messenger client of choice, we effectively make ourselves remote telecommuters even when we are physically present.

Is there an upside?

Headphones can operate as a visual "do not disturb, I'm working" signal for employees who, in open-plan offices, need solitude in order to execute their work. As one interviewee told me, her headphones "put me in a 'get stuff done' frame of mind" and others reported that headphones made them "more focused" and that work was "more fun." Being able to achieve that sense of solitude when necessary is clearly important.

Organizational psychologists such as K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State and Adrian Furnham at University College London have studied the phenomenon. "If you have talented and motivated people," Furnham says, "they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

And instant messaging at work can have its uses. As my editor at HBR says, "I instant-message with colleagues who sit next to me. It seems the best way to brainstorm headlines." IM can also cut down on the number of time-consuming emails sent and received, and help employees who are actually physically remote communicate more easily with people in the office.

But organizations need to develop protocols that avoid making isolation the universal default office norm, and that encourage face-to-face interaction. Some personal-bubbledom is necessary. But too much creates a lonely crowd.

How can you find the right balance? Accept the reality of our electronically networked workplaces and private digital media consumption. The new workforce, raised on perpetual multi-screen multi-tasking, would not be able to function well in a closed, 20th-century-style environment. Rather than creating unenforceable rules, employees and organizations should be helped to understand what's being lost in the process of mindless, unplanned mass capitulation to the machines. Create working environments that encourage physical interaction; have small lunches that cut across hierarchical levels; include people who tend to shy away from group activities to participate in the softball team or fantasy football or Oscar pools. And keep managing by walking around, even though text-messaging and email seem to make real-world encounters unnecessary. As Rachel Silverman and Robin Sidel reported in their piece on the officeless office, GlaxoSmithKline, which has saved $10 million in annual real estate costs by shifting 1,200 employees at one New Jersey site to unassigned seating, found that decision-making among their staff had risen by 25% primarily because e-mail exchanges had been replaced by good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations — conversations that never would've happened had all their employees been wearing headphones.

Why You Really Shouldn't Curse at Work (Much) by Anne Kreamer

The media brouhaha over Carol Bartz's coarse language in the wake of her firing was telling. Rather than responsibly assessing her merits as the chief executive of Yahoo!, the conversation instantly devolved into what kind of woman swears on the job. That, to me, is so twentieth century. When we've reached a point in our anything-goes culture that the anchors of the most important newscasts (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) curse nightly, and public figures like prime-time teenage role model Lea Michele, the actress who plays a goody-goody(ish) character on Glee, talks (as we used to say) like a stevedore in interviews, it strikes me that managers and executives need to seriously rethink the words they choose to communicate displeasure.

In fact, we're now so inured to vulgarity that it takes something really over-the-top — say, the baby doll being sold this holiday season that apparently curses — to make us stop and take notice. Taboo words, with a couple of true taboo exceptions, have always been used sparingly to communicate powerful emotions, but when swearing becomes simply reflexive and ubiquitous — as it is today — those words cease to have much power or meaning. And when crude words do shock, the language deflects our focus from the serious issues at hand.

Take, for instance, the internal Goldman Sachs e-mail that Senator Carl Levin read aloud last year during a Congressional hearing: "Boy, that Timberwolf was one shitty deal.'" Hard to tell without more context whether the guy who wrote that e-mail (now a Bank of America division president) was proud of the group for pulling the wool over the public's eyes, or just candidly stating the facts. But one thing became clear pretty quickly — to the American public, the language made what looked like double-dealing cynicism more memorably rotten. And the immediate consequence? Rather than suggest to their employees that they not sell bad deals to their clients, Goldman Sachs chose to focus on the language and its potential for embarrassment, instructing their employees to stop using profanity in e-mails. The emotionally laden words that communicate our more powerful feelings are particularly slippery at work, where we spend the majority of our waking hours and where our livelihoods hang in the balance.

How we choose to interpret hyper-charged no-longer-taboo words changes from moment to moment and office to hallway, according to permutations of status, gender, ethnicity, education, age and the particular setting — one person's obscenity is another's spicy punctuation. "In-house" language is often at odds with public norms. I was talking with a female partner in a New York corporate communications company that advises companies on critical communications challenges. "I think of swearing," she told me, "the way I think of Yiddish. It's very expressive." But she also asked to be quoted anonymously, perhaps anxious that her cheerful acceptance of workplace swearing might be seen as an endorsement — and might offend clients, current or prospective. And yet many of the people I spoke with about this subject, men as well as women, suggested that swearing was a strategic part of the lexicon they developed to be taken seriously as potential alphas of their organizations. I can relate. My first jobs were in banking and then media sales — businesses at the time completely dominated by men and fueled by a backslapping, crude-joke-telling camaraderie. Swearing definitely helped me come across as one of the guys, and thereby granted me access to the kind of casual gossiping and information-trading upon which deals are sometimes built. "Swearing," as one senior female attorney told me, "gives others, men and women, reciprocal permission to let their hair down and feel comfortable sharing revelations." This approach — swearing as an effective social tool that can enhance work relationships and allow women in particular to present an equal-to-men or even crypto-masculine identity — has been documented by psychology and linguistics researchers.

But not all swearing is equal. Take swearing in anger. Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and Type A hostility and many scholarly studies (Jennifer Coates, 1993, Vivian de Klerk, 1991, 1997) identify swearing as intrinsically aggressive. Take Dick Cheney's unapologetic snarling at Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor, or Serena Williams's outburst to a ref about a foot-fault call. Their curses were meant to take charge, to intimidate. And swearing men and swearing women are perceived differently. De Klerk discovered that women risk being viewed more negatively than men when using obscenities. Elizabeth Gordon, who studies speech and gender stereotypes at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has found in her research that women who were "non-standard" speakers — that is, foul-mouthed — were judged to be of lower social and moral strata. We've seen this play out in public. Cheney refused to apologize for his f-bomb and reported that he felt "better" after his exchange with Senator Leahy, whereas at Serena Williams's next press conference, she was subdued and entirely contrite. These days, it's practically meaningless and way too easy to say something "sucks," or (much) worse. And the rough waters in which we all now work makes it increasingly important to be clear and precise about what is going on emotionally inside and around us — not to be milquetoasty, but to be calibrated. As a person who allowed (and, I confess, still occasionally allows) herself to resort to default swearing, it seems to me that in this laissez faire age, and as we start a new year with new intentions, that it's a good idea — indeed, a damn fine notion — for business leaders to get more truly creative about their language and use the various linguistic bombs only sparingly.

A Female-Dominated Workplace Won't Fix Everything by Anne Kreamer

From the Harvard Business Review.

Men on the job must feel besieged. Two seismic shifts are underway that are irrevocably changing the ways in which we've believed work works.

On the one hand, new technologies have enabled neuroscience to discover that men and women tend to be wired differently in ways that incline men — can it be? — to behave more emotionally and irrationally in certain work situations, exploding the myth that women are the only emotional creatures in the workplace. Recent research, like that led by Cambridge University neuroscientist John Coates, suggests that surges in male financial traders' testosterone produce states of euphoria that cause them to understate risk, thus contributing to the overleveraged global financial crash. Since men naturally produce ten times as much testosterone as women, it's being suggested that a more gender-balanced financial workforce could be stabilizing for firms and for the system as a whole.

On the other hand, the metrics of 21st century female professional and economic empowerment have become a tide. As of the last two years, more American workers are female than male, and the postindustrial occupations in which women predominate — health and education, among others — are the growth sectors. Women today account for 57% of college undergraduates, 62% of graduate students, and majorities of those graduating from medical and law schools. Despite the continuing rarity of women at the very tops of large corporations (which will inexorably shift as the cohort of overwhelmingly male CEOs retires during the next decade) and in finance, a 2004 study by the women's group Catalyst, The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity, concluded that companies with the highest percentages of women in their executive ranks achieved 35% higher returns on average. What's more, according to the Center for Women's Business Research, women today own 40% of the private businesses in the United States and a study released last year found that (the relatively few) high-tech start-ups led by women fail less frequently than those led by men. After 40 years of feminist-era dues paying, women's moment has come. Hear us roar.

As a woman who came of age in the late 1970s and who has worked in sometimes unproductively male-dominated workplaces, I'm with the program so far. Two-income families are the new normal. Economic parity for women is a good thing. But I don't think we should rush into simplistically thinking that a female-dominated workplace will change everything and overnight make the world perfect. The bigger opportunity, and indeed an essential rethink if we are to reboot our economy, is finally to move beyond circa-1970s gender-centric ideology into a larger, more constructive conversation about how to reinvent workplace norms.

We humans, women and men alike, are hobbled by a gigantic evolutionary time lag. We have no clue how to handle 21st century cognitive threats, real life in the modern workplace. We evolved, survived, through our ability to respond to physical threat — is that a snake on the trail or a stick? Our bodies' stress hormones, adrenaline, cortisol and testosterone, among others, which raise blood pressure and send more blood to our muscles, historically made us more alert in preparation to fight or flee imminent physical threats. Whether I'm fleeing a charging lion or cowering before a screaming boss, the amygdala responds, on a basic level, in a very similar way. Deep inside we are all irredeemably super-old-school. But the reality is that emotion is far more complicated in a modern work setting than it was for our prehistoric ancestors on the savanna. Is the person in the next cubicle gunning for my job? How will I get my work done when the babysitter calls in sick? And this disconnect — this evolutionary delay in the development of more emotionally nuanced or sophisticated responses to psychological challenges — is a huge contributor to what makes navigating modern work/life so incredibly hard.

In a 2008 paper on gender differences, five psychologists — Kateri McRae and James Gross of Stanford, Kevin Ochsner of Columbia, Iris Mauss of the University of Denver, and John Gabrieli of MIT — reported that while men and women don't really differ in their basic "reactivity" to emotional provocation, they are quite different in the ways in which they respond. Based on both subsequent questioning and neural responses to aversive photos as measured by fMRI brain scans, the authors discovered no significant differences between the genders in the speed of their reactions to stimuli. But there are gender-based distinctions in how men and women were able to regulate and manage their emotional response to these stimuli. The amygdala was less activated in men's brains than in women's, and portions of the women's prefrontal cortex, the cognitive control center, were more active than those of the men. The relatively new science of emotion is beginning to pinpoint precisely the neurochemical differences between the ways women and men tend to approach and deal with emotion, and it is important neither to let PC feminist ideology or neo-Victorian "Ooh, ick" squeamishness blind us to the findings. A too-reductive men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus perspective serves no one.

Rather than stigmatize the characteristic emotional biologies of one gender or the other, it should be the goal of any person or organization to allow all emotion at work, in all of its gendered nuances, its full due. Understanding the truths that neuroscience is revealing will allow us greater awareness and thus control of the emotions that shape our decisions and behavior at work. Learning and paying attention to the emotions that motivate and/or hobble us and in what measure — anger, anxiety, fear, joy — can help us learn to manage and use those emotions more effectively. I'd like to think that today, with U.S. women irrevocably at work and the economy in such dire straits, that we can safely raise all kinds of questions without endangering progress. When it comes to emotions and work, we should start being more unflinchingly analytical and empirical than ever before. As science discovers, confirms, and refines new understandings of gender-based aspects of emotion, let's try not to react to them too emotionally.

Taking Your Feelings To Work by Anne Kreamer

WHEN I graduated from college in 1977, the world was still neatly divided into two spheres: work and everything else. Work was supposed to be a hyperrational realm of logic, filled with timetables, organizational charts and returns on investment. It was only outside of work that emotions — so dangerously ill-defined and unpredictable — were supposed to emerge.

Anne Kreamer says that “home life, with all its messy, complicated emotional currents, has become inextricably and undeniably woven into the workplace.”

But from the first day of my first real job, as an administrative assistant at the Park Avenue headquarters of a commercial bank that is now defunct, I realized that emotions were simmering everywhere in the workplace.

My desk, on the hushed, deep-pile-carpeted executive floor, was a few feet opposite the restroom doors. (Clearly, I was lowest in the pecking order.) Every few days, one of the three executive women on my half of the floor would rush into the restroom and, after a little too long, re-emerge with the remnants of a good cry still visible on her splotchy face. I also watched men dash into the men’s room and leave a few minutes later, tight-lipped and ashen.

Even as a 21-year-old workplace neophyte, I realized that emotion is a force that underlies all of our behavior. For my book, “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace,” I spent two years exploring Americans’ attitudes toward emotion at work today, and my findings suggest this amended version of Descartes’s famous line: I think and feel, therefore I am.

In the old days — pre-Internet, pre-cellphones — it was a lot easier to believe “work equals rational” and “home equals emotional.” But now that work and home life constantly bleed into each other, that distinction has become anachronistic and probably self-defeating. People text and e-mail their friends and family members throughout the workday, and they receive messages from colleagues and clients on nights and weekends and during vacations.

The membranes between private life and work, especially office work, have always been porous, but today employers and employees expect accessibility and accountability pretty much round-the-clock. And whereas old-school office memos and business letters generally weren’t expected to be friendly or candid — that is, human — business e-mails most definitely are.

Conversely, what used to be considered private behavior can instantly reverberate at work through social networking. People fire off e-mails late at night, only to regret their tone and intent in the cold light of day. Facebook friends from work can stumble upon wild and crazy pictures from a bachelorette party. Tweets and anonymous mobile video uploads can instantly broadcast unflattering emotional displays by surly customer service employees or misbehaving C.E.O.’s.

The conventional wisdom used to be that we brought home the emotions we couldn’t express at work — snapping (or worse) at blameless partners and children. That is still true, but what’s new is that home life, with all its messy, complicated emotional currents, has become inextricably and undeniably woven into the workplace.

The rulebook for modern office etiquette has yet to be codified. How do we avoid hurting one another’s feelings if everything is supposed to be rational, yet also transparent and accessible? How can others understand the emotion behind what we’re trying to say in an e-mail if no one takes the time to read beyond the subject line and the first sentence?

And the more we relegate communication to the electronic realm, the greater our longing for face-to-face contact. Our new “flat” organizational structures at work might seem to promote a more hang-loose level of emotional expression. But, if anything, flatter organizations tend to require even higher levels of emotional competency and effort in order to navigate amorphous command structures.

NO one is sure where the lines are anymore. Should we high-five an underling? Is it cool to make jokes with the boss? What if we overhear the man in the next cubicle crying?

Clear rules for this new working world simply don’t exist. But one thing is certain. The Millennials, a generation raised with the 24/7 naked emotional transparency of texting and social networking, is now entering the work force by the millions each year. As they replace old-schoolers born in the 1940s and ’50s, there is no turning back to a compartmentalized world.

I like to imagine that if men and women were to express more emotion routinely and easily at work — jokes, warmth, sadness, anger, tears, joy, all of it — then as a people we might not feel so chronically anxious and overwhelmed. By denying the range of emotional expressiveness intrinsic and appropriate to the workplace, we find ourselves at a loss for how to handle this brave new boundary-less world.

Overtly acknowledging how and in what measure anger, anxiety, fear and pleasure color and shape our working lives can help us manage those emotions and use them to our benefit, both at work and at home.


What Do Glenn Beck, Jim Cramer, Rush Limbaugh and most bosses have in common? by Anne Kreamer

They don’t understand their anger. “In a culture where it’s easy to fire of a snippy e-mail or text,” reported Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal column ‘Friendly Fight:  A Smarter Say to Say I’m Angry,’  “most of have a hard time honestly expressing anger face to face.  If someone upsets us, often we shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, refuse to speak to the person or complain to everyone else.  Or we kid ourselves that we aren’t upset and subconsciously fume – until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing.”  And no one likes to be on the receiving end of explosive anger.

Sound familiar?  I bet it does.  In the research I conducted for my book, 60% of all Americans reported seeing their boss get angry with someone on the job during the past year.  And yet, none of us are ever taught how to deal with managing our anger or how to deal with others.

Anger is a biologically driven response to threat.  When threatened, we release the hormone epinephrine, followed by norepinephrine (noradrenaline), prepping the body to react – increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, and narrowing our focus as we prepare to flight or flee.  And this is what is at the crux of the issue for modern homo sapiens in the workplace:  pretty much as they did 200,000 years ago, our bodies continue to automatically process psychological threats as physical threats.  Deep inside we are all irredeemably very old school.  But the reality is that reacting to a psychological threat with a physical response is wildly inappropriate.  And this disconnect – this evolutionary lag in the development of more emotionally calibrated or sophisticated responses to psychological challenges – is a huge contributor to what makes navigating modern life so incredibly hard.  As the economist Terry Burnham, the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains:  How to Profit From the New Science of Irrationality, put it, “The caricature view would be, the caveman wins the battle, has more babies, crushes his enemies, then puts on a suit 10,000 years later and goes into a boardroom and still wants to crush his enemies.”

To be effective at work we need to learn how to handle this evolutionary gap in responding to non-physical threat.  I have created many tools to aid us in developing this challenging skill and one of the best is something I call DING.  Which relates to the concept of self-reflection or meta-cognition, which I’ll address in another post.

Big Boys Should Cry by Anne Kreamer

I’m no John Boehner fan.  And I’m even less of a Mitch McConnell fan.  But as a person who chokes up at a movie or book or a news story most days and full-on cried during Toy Story 3, as tough as it is for me to admit it, I feel for both of them right now. Crying politicians are nothing new. Remember Democratic Presidential candidate Ed Muskie, who lost the 1972 nomination after he teared up during a press conference in New Hampshire while defending his wife? And Hillary Clinton, who also famously choked up, in 2008, also while campaigning for President in the New Hampshire primary?

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. (Photos by AP Photo)

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. (Photos by AP Photo)

I understand the modern default assumption that a politician is using emotional displays cynically. (See Clinton, Bill.) And I understand why women, especially women who politically oppose the un-compassionate conservatives Boehner and McConnell, are tempted to revile them for tearing up, which Senator McConnell did this week delivering a farewell speech to his friend Judd Gregg (of New Hampshire -- again New Hampshire!) while Boehner apparently gets weepy on a daily basis. But I’m made uncomfortable that these apparently authentic emotional displays by powerful men are fair game for ridicule.

Men completely controlled the workplace when women first went into the labor force in significant numbers during the late 60s and 70s, so we females believed that to be successful we had to “man up,” and emulate their emotional restraint. For forty years women have had to adhere to a poker-faced workplace persona that denies essential aspects or our emotional wiring.  Nancy Pelosi said of Boehner in The New York Times magazine, “You know what?  He is known to cry.  He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills.  If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that.  But when it comes to politics – no – I don’t cry." But a hard outer shell of pseudo-invulnerability comes at a cost to both genders.

Women cry, on average, four times as often as men – according to neurologist William Frey, an average of 5.3 times per month, compared with 1.4 times for men. And this isn't just a function of cultural training – women generate far more prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production that also controls the neurotransmitter receptors in our tear glands, and women’s tear ducts are anatomically different from male tear ducts, resulting in a larger volume of tears. In a 2009 survey I conducted with J. Walter Thompson probing the nature of emotion in the workplace I discovered that *both* women and men divide themselves into two large camps:  those 25% who cry regularly and those 75% who tend not to cry frequently.  McConnell, Boehner and I are part of the 25% of us who are members of the “crying tribe.”  We also discovered in our survey that when we do tear up on the job, women can be our own worst enemies – a plurality of women consider people who cry at work  "unstable," whereas roughly that same fraction of men see tears on the job as only "slightly unprofessional."  In other words, women see tears at work as some kind of moral/psychological failure, but men don’t.

“We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she [Nancy Pelosi], or any female lawmaker, broke into loud nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview,” Gail Collins wrote in her December 16th New York Times Op-Ed column about Boehner. But instead of decrying (no pun intended) the operative gender double standard, and suggesting that the no-crying rule be enforced equally for male and female Speakers of the House, I think it would be much better to allow McConnell’s or Boehner's tearfulness to abolish the no-cry rule for *both* genders.  Women (and men) who are belittling Boehner and McConnell for getting emotional are not helping humanity’s larger cause – that all people should feel comfortable being as authentically themselves as possible. We can continue to despise their politics and cynical maneuvers but still grant them their humanity.

Emotion and the Markets by Anne Kreamer

David Brooks was onto something interesting in today's op-ed column in The New York Times. This was the first piece I've come across addressing how emotional distance may have contributed to the financial crisis. He wrote: The economists talk about mispriced risk and illiquidity in the system. But many economists are trained to downplay emotion, social psychology and moral norms, and so produce bloodless and incomplete descriptions of what's going on. The truth is, decision-making is an inherently emotional process, and the traders in charge of these trillions become bipolar as a result of their uncertainty.

Brooks point?

1. Traders don't see reality directly they view its shadow in technical models on their computers. 2.  Social and emotional contagion fuel increasingly irrational decisions.

It's time to get real. Maybe we should stop looking at complex financial scenarios and start using common sense. Maybe we should stop listening to on-air hysteria-inducing bloviators and start trusting our emotional gut if it feels too good to be true, that's probably the case. And if you're frightened out of your wits, step back, and take a deep breath before jumping.

Can Women Grow Success at Work? by Anne Kreamer

Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis reported the following in their book Leadership and the Sexes, Catalyst Corporation has found that the group of companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than the group of companies with the lowest women's representation. This finding holds for both financial measures analyzed: Return on Equity (ROE), which is 35.1 percent higher, and Total Return to Shareholders (TRS), which is 34.0 percent higher.

Do you know any companies where this might be true?