Is Empathy Anger the Only Acceptable Emotion for Women at Work?

Aimee Hansen Author

Aimee Hansen

By Aimee Hansen

Have you ever been told “don’t be so emotional?” at work?

I remember a specific moment in an office I worked in over ten years ago. A male boss was speaking to a female co-worker about something he was unhappy with in her performance, and while conveying his feedback, he told her not to be so emotional.

As he spoke in the fishbowl office, I watched from my cubicle while he paced back and forth, his hands waving emphatically through the air, his face and head getting redder and redder, his voice elevating until it carried right through the glass walls to where our team sat. My co-worker remained relatively calm in a chair in front of him.

When she finally came out with tears held back in her eyes, I considered the irony of what I’d just witnessed – how selective emotions that were more masculine-identified were permissible and somehow not too emotional?

And I wondered too, were the tears that stung in her eyes also anger, albeit withheld?

When Caught in Anger

All emotions are guides and most dangerous if denied, but the way we manage them and channel their outward expression matters. Today children – and girls particularly – are being encouraged to be in more in touch with anger, rather than repress it.

“It is natural and normal to feel anger,” iterates Audrey Nelson, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “If you never get angry, it means you have no boundaries or you will not acknowledge them.”

When in the moment of anger, it’s important to realize what’s at play.

Research shows that anger impairs your ability to step back and see any matter from multiple perspectives, which can lead to conflict spirals. This holds true even when the residual anger is unrelated to the situation you are presently dealing with.

“What we’re finding is that when people feel angry, they’re collapsing in on themselves,” says Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer about the studies. “They become far more egocentric.”

The researchers share that any emotion that results in high arousal – including happiness – means a diminished ability for perspective-taking, which requires greater cognitive energy. It’s important that when caught in anger to realize you are more likely to hold an egocentric perspective in this moment.

When Leaders Display Anger

Research has shown that displaying anger in the office has the potential to go several ways when it comes to leadership perception.

Leaders who are perceived to exhibit anger as a personality trait, as opposed to selectively and motivationally, are often seen as less effective. Especially when a leader’s anger is deemed inappropriate, it decreases employee motivation towards voluntary tasks.

Displaying anger has been associated with perceived power more than displaying sadness, however some research shows that showing sadness can actually create more positive outcomes for leaders.

Whereas showing anger is associated with “position (ie. legitimate, reward and coercive) power,” which does indeed have benefits in perceived leader effectiveness and follower loyalty, showing sadness is more associated with greater “personal (ie. referent) power”.

This means that leaders displaying anger are seen to have more coercive power, being solid in their position in the organization and the punishments and rewards they wield, but are less appealing on a personal level than leaders who display sadness. That can have some backfire effects on leadership leverage.

Another study shows that when a leader displays anger in response to a matter of integrity, this increases the perception of his or her leader effectiveness. However, when a leader displays anger in response to a matter of competency, this reduces perception of his or her leader effectiveness.

Also, it’s all in the eye of the beholder’s own feelings. Research that measured performance found that followers who were not very agreeable responded positively to a leader’s exhibition of anger, whereas followers who were highly agreeable responded poorly to the exhibition of anger by a leader.

When Women Exhibit Anger

Due to the glaring gender gap, the research on leadership perception and anger is skewed towards displays of anger by male leaders. Not surprisingly, anger is perceived differently if displayed by a woman than a man, though it’s entirely untrue that men experience anger more often than women.

What research has found is that while men experience decreased effectiveness when they cannot display anger, women are able to hold in the anger, and may even feel bad about experiencing it, but will still be able to act upon their feelings when the situation calls for it.

Beyond feeling it’s counterproductive, women leaders have a social reason to hold back on overt anger expression.

“Women incur social and economic penalties for expressing stereotypical ‘masculine’ emotions because they threaten society’s patriarchal barriers against the ‘dominance of women’,” writes Quintin Fottrell, summing up the researcher’s findings.

When women clearly exhibit the agentic (often masculine-identified) qualities that both sexes associate as primary to effective leadership, they fall into a double bind where they are seen as less communal than expected from a woman, and judged harshly.

Unless women exhibit both agentic and communal qualities simultaneously, women leaders can experience backlash.

Research on group deliberation found that men’s social influence increased when their opinion included an expression of anger, whereas women’s social influence diminished when they expressed the exact same opinion with anger.

Whereas participants confidence in their own position diminished when a man was expressing his position with anger (observers were more likely to question their own stance around an angry man), it solidified more when a woman expressed her position with anger.

The researchers found that “Participants regarded an angry woman as more emotional, which made them more confident in their own opinion.” While anger added to credibility for men, and increased their authority, it led to dismissal for women.

Women, unlike men, are also likely to be perceived in a poorer light by both men and women if they express anger about situations that have personally caused them harm rather than share with emotional neutrality. Women’s anger was attributed to her personality in this case, whereas men’s anger is perceived to be motivated by external circumstances.

It’s Different When Women Exhibit ‘Empathetic’ Anger

Not all anger is the same. Sometimes it helps to have anger attributed directly to personality, when it comes to advocating for or defending others.

A recent set of studies revealed that when women display genuine empathetic anger – “anger that is caused by witnessing or learning of harm done to another person” – they are positively perceived as signaling both agentic and communal leadership traits.

Women were significantly more likely to benefit from displays of empathetic anger than men, including being seen as more effective in their position. The reason is that observer’s more strongly attributed the empathetic anger in women leaders to their personalities, which reflected positively upon the leader’s character.

The researchers encourage women to be very forthcoming in displaying their empathetic anger, because it allows women to be witnessed positively as agentic while increasing their communal perception too. Empathetic anger is associated with prosocial behavior.

It’s frustrating to have women’s expression of anger under greater scrutiny by everyone, women included. It’s also good to know that when anger has a more collective feel, it works for reinforcing women’s leadership, as the injustices one women faces are rarely faced entirely alone.

When it comes to empathy, it’s one place women are rewarded for getting “too emotional.”

Authors Bio: Aimee Hansen is a freelance writer, frequent contributor to theglasshammer and Creator and Facilitator of Storyteller Within Retreats, Lonely Planet recommended women’s circle retreats focused on self-exploration and connecting with your inner truth and sacred expression through writing, yoga, meditation, movement and ceremonies.