When Susan Cain was a corporate lawyer in New York City, she’d put on her power suit at home—and then don her emotional armor before entering the office. That’s because she needed to prepare not only for her job, but also for the “emotional labor” of being a strong, super-positive professional in a challenging work environment.
“I would reach the office door every morning,” she recalls, “and I’d say to myself, Okay, Susan, time to put on your Superwoman costume! Immediately I would change my whole way of being, starting with my facial expression. I knew from long experience that any signs of sadness or weakness were not considered appropriate for the workplace.”
As Cain chronicles in her most recent book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, everyone has periods of sadness and weakness, and they’re not always so easy to hide. Yet too often, like Cain, we are made to feel that our true feelings are not welcome in the office, that we are expected to exude nothing but strength and positivity.
Eventually, the expense of energy to appear invulnerable at work caused Cain to burn out, and she quit. She went on to forge a highly successful career writing and speaking about the power of expressing who we really are—warts and all.
We form deep connections from being open about the challenges we face, and these connections can make collaborating on a work project much easier.
Author of the 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain is a past member of Toastmasters and was awarded Toastmasters International’s prestigious Golden Gavel Award in 2013 for her communication and leadership achievements.
Why Show Vulnerability at Work?
The association in many people’s minds of happy winners and abject losers can make us think that instead of being happy because we win, we have to be happy in order to win. Yet Cain enumerates several reasons why encouraging the display of authentic emotions such as loneliness and longing is actually vital for an organization’s success. First, it leaves employees the time and energy for more important things than hiding feelings—like doing your job to the best of your ability. Sometimes, as in Cain’s own case, putting on a happy face all day can feel like a job in itself.
What’s more, letting others know how you feel can prevent conflict. For example, do you experience chronic pain? If colleagues know you’re not feeling up to par, they won’t take it personally when you don’t smile and make small talk at the office. Plus, says Cain, shared sorrow tends to bring us together. We form deep connections from being open about the challenges we face, and these connections can make collaborating on a work project much easier.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for bosses to promote the display of authentic emotion in the office is simply practical. If everyone were totally satisfied, there would be no overwhelming urge for growth or change. Creativity would be stifled. In fact, Cain contends, business outcomes actually depend on normalizing vulnerability and “challenging the tyranny of positivity.”
This idea of transforming pain and longing into creativity, transcendence, and love is at the heart of Cain’s thesis.
How To Share Vulnerability at Work
There are several ways to spread the message that challenging emotions are welcome in the workplace.
1 Leaders can communicate their own fears and worries—up to a point.
They may not want to overshare concerns and anxieties; employees want to feel they can count on their bosses. But if leaders don’t pretend to be superhuman, they give those who work for them permission to accept that they’re not, either, and to not beat themselves up for their own all-too-human flaws and foibles.
2 Try this simple exercise: Ask employees to write on a slip of paper a challenge they face.
Tell them not to include any identifying information. Then collect the papers and have someone read out the responses. (This works best in a large group to preserve anonymity.) In this way, says Cain, people come to appreciate the shared humanity of everyone on the team, and learn to behave toward one another with compassion—even if they don’t know which problem belongs to whom.
3 Practice kindness.
Feeling free to express your own negative emotions means that you also have the freedom to show empathy to others. Even small gestures of kindness can have a powerful impact.
“I recently got a letter from a woman going through a really difficult time,” Cain explains. “She was a bank teller. She told me that someone gave her an extra smile at work and that made all the difference to her.”
4 Explore the Toastmasters Pathways project “Understanding Emotional Intelligence.”
The project helps cultivate an understanding of how emotions impact our relationships, including those at work. It also helps identify how the emotions of others impact our own, and introduces concepts such as reframing, active listening, self-regulation, and emotional honesty.
How Toastmasters Helped Susan Cain
At the start of her literary career, joining Toastmasters provided Cain with a major confidence boost. She says being a member was particularly meaningful because the experience enabled her—a self-described introvert who had just written about the subject in Quiet—to speak comfortably on stages around the world.
“A good speaker is fully there with you, in touch with the full range of emotional life, however it’s going to express itself.”—Susan Cain
“I came to Toastmasters with a lifelong, crippling fear of public speaking,” she says, “and for years I avoided confronting that fear. But when my first book came out, I knew I had to do speaking engagements. So I started showing up for [Toastmasters] meetings. In time, the change in my skills and attitude felt transcendent. Absolutely unbelievable.”
Cain sees a strong connection between public speaking and her current work.
“What makes a good talk?” she asks. “It’s not revealing your deepest personal secrets. It’s being totally present. A good speaker is fully there with you, in touch with the full range of emotional life, however it’s going to express itself.
“This is about more than emotional intelligence,” she adds. “I’m talking about emotional willingness, the will to express your own feelings and those of others.” Maybe the atmosphere that surrounds such disclosures is not always so pleasant, she concedes. “But it can be exquisitely sweet to recognize that we are all human beings, that we can be acutely aware of the distress of others, as well as our own.”
Have you found yourself wearing a superhero costume at the office? Are you ready to challenge the tyranny of positivity at work? Depending on your role in the company and the nature of your industry, you might want to make incremental changes. But the rewards, Cain says, can be huge.
“A friend of mine is a CEO,” she says. “When I was researching this book, he told me he only wanted to hire happy people, that unhappy people can make organizational life difficult. I recently connected with him again, after he put into practice the principles in Bittersweet. And he said, ‘The truth is, now we all know each other so well. We love it.’”
Caren S. Neile, Ph.D. teaches storytelling studies at Florida Atlantic University and has presented at three Toastmasters International conventions. Visit her at carenneile.com.