Thursday, January 24, 2013

Its Actually Okay To Let Them See You Sweat

In general, in the work environment, people expect professionalism. I mean, if you're going for a degree in being a Mime, they're all as serious (and silent) as possible, I'm sure.

This typically means that, no matter how mad you get, you don't yell, and that, no matter how freaked out your are, you don't show the giant round stains of sweat under your arms.

It also means that, if you are a typical human, that you will yell, and sometimes they're going to see you flop sweat. The point of today's post is: that's okay. Being human is okay.

For example: recently, I had to speak to someone about their behavior. I had a sit down with him to discuss his behavior, done well away from the rest of the team except for the development lead who also managed him (as I feel all improvement talks should be done in private), and nearly resulted in my firing him on the spot. The point of mentioning this is that I became so angry, I literally had tears in my eyes. Yes, angry. Not afraid, not scared, not frustrated: PISSED. OFF.

A brief moment to note that I am female. I imagine that some male leaders may also tear up when they're very angry, but I've mostly seen it in myself and other females. A large number of employers do not like this behavior, and I'm not terribly fond of it myself in myself. Even writing about it is often considered a bold act, because future employers reading this blog may choose not to hire me because I "might" get emotional as a manager. Quite frankly, I have never met a manager, female or male, who knows what to do with an employee that has water leakage at the eyes. Usually they immediately assume some kind of weakness is going on, and desperately want to fix it or leave it's presence as fast as possible. Sometimes both. 

However, crying sometimes happens. Stub your toe hard enough, no matter your gender, and you'll be blinking back tears in a work environment, too, and subject to the assumptions that are made about people who tear up. Like being seen sweating during a meeting, when people will assume you're nervous, or worse, have poor hygiene. Or when your voice raises in response to someone else, even if you're speaking up because they indicated they couldn't hear you on the speaker phone: loud voices are often construed as rude. Or when you have to ask someone to repeat themselves more than twice, because their accent is so heavy/the background noise is so great/etc. In America, where I write this blog, asking someone to repeat themselves more than twice generally makes the person having to repeat themselves angry on the third repetition, with the automatic thought that they are not being taken seriously, and are literally not being heard...even if there's a really good reason for it.

I've talked about looking at things from the perspective of other people before in this blog, and I will again. But today's post is to understand their perspective--which in this case may well be wrong about you--and how to move on through that and get out through the other side, without being considered a jerk, crazy person, or idiot.

Expressions of emotion do happen in the workplace. Despite the former deodorant logo that sort of became part of corporate culture in the 80's, "Never Let Them See You Sweat" is a cool idea, but often lacks in the actual application portion of the program.  As a human, there are things you do try to adhere to that ideal, such as minimizing work contact with unpleasant reactions/bodily functions, and in so doing, perpetuate professionalism in the environment. But slipping up now and again, or dealing with biological forces that happen whether you want them to or not (ever been in a hot room and willed yourself not to sweat? I have), is something you're going to have to cope with as a manager and as an employee. 

No matter the bodily function--passing gas, yelling, crying, sweating, etc.--you have two options: 1) flee or 2) mitigate and move on. From time to time, fleeing is the right choice; if you are yelling, removing yourself from the situation can help calm things down and get them back to a professional place faster than staying put and trying to reason things out at high volume. Most of the time, however, you need to mitigate and move on to avoid or minimize the stereotype associated with being human at work.

In my example, above, as tears leaked from my eyes, I wiped them thoroughly and openly, and then told the men in the meeting, "I always get watery eyes when I'm passionate about things." Then, having addressed the watery elephant in the room, I went on with my job. Both men looked as if they wanted to comment on the behavior, but I launched right back into my role as manager, decrying the productivity of the discussion and moving us, with help from the development lead, back into more productive waters.  Neither of the two participants in the meeting said anything, though my development lead looked like he might end the entire conversation because he though I was going to break down and cry. Fortunately, he didn't attempt to do that, and so I didn't kill him.

I kept my words professional. My voice got louder. But the employee in question was three feet away from me, leaning in, and yelling into my face. So, in my book, I'm forgiven for getting so angry, especially since I didn't fire him on the spot, didn't say anything unprofessional, and managed to keep control of the situation.

I joke about dire consequences if the meeting had been disrupted because of my biological response. But I did address the issue with my development lead after the meeting: he wasn't aware that sometimes, when I'm very angry, I cry. Or that anyone did that. I took the time to educate him, we chatted about it, and then we moved on.

I mitigated, in that instance, by calling out the issue in question "My eyes are watering" and then I moved on in the conversation by not allowing the biological activity to change/manage my response to the situation. Fleeing might have played into the stereotype that crying at work = weakness. But by all means, sometimes there are other ways to handle the situation. Passing gas and explaining that your eyes are watering, for example, is funny, but not professional or helpful.I further mitigated the situation after it was immediately over, by talking about the concerns that the biological reaction had brought up, educating a friend and co-worker, and further minimizing the affect of being human in the moment.

If people didn't occasionally belch inappropriately or sweat under odd circumstances or tear up, they would not be human. And while I, for one, welcome our eventual alien overlords, I'm happy to deal with my current human overlords (lordettes, minions, etc.) by acknowledging that I am human, but I am still professional. You can, be, too.

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