Three ways women can navigate emotional workplace drama

Learn how to confront these potentially charged—or just plain uncomfortable—land mines

One morning roughly a decade ago, Mollie West Duffy, then in her early 20s, went to work at her startup job and realized the area above her right eye had gone “completely numb.” Alarmed, she made an appointment with her doctor, who asked if she was experiencing any stress at work. It was the kind of question that might earn many a physician an eye roll (who isn’t stressed out by work?), but his suggestion that her problem was linked to ongoing professional agita led to a self-described “light bulb moment” for Duffy.

“I realized that my emotions [at work] had come out in a physical manifestation, which meant I wasn’t dealing with them,” says Duffy, co-founder of Liz and Mollie and co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. “But I had no idea how to deal with my emotions in a professional setting, and hadn’t been taught that in college.”

Most people would likely relate. Still, everyone experiences some emotion at work, whether it comes out as an angry outburst, in tears, or through silence.

“Research shows that managers who show emotion are more trustworthy, while those who don’t show any emotions send the message that it’s never OK,” says Duffy. “But too much and people think [their managers] aren’t good at their jobs. It’s a delicate balance.”

This is especially true for women, who may not be given as much leeway to express anger or frustration. At SheMarket, a recent half-day career event put on by both women-focused career site Career Contessa and WeWork, Duffy and other SheMarket speakers—including Lauren McGoodwin, founder and CEO of Career Contessa, and Callie Schweitzer, founder of creative strategy and consulting firm The Callie Co.—analyzed how women can navigate the emotions involved in three common, potentially charged situations. Their tips are versatile for everyone in the workplace, from managers to employees who mostly report to others, as well as to those who are still figuring out where they fall.

Panelists (from left) Lauren McGoodwin, Mallory Blair, Callie Schweitzer, Lisa Skeete Tatum, and Natalia Nataskin.

The problem: Stress rears its ugly head and impacts your decision-making.

The solve: No Hard Feelings places people in two general groups: under-emoters and over-emoters. The former may not have a yelling fit in the office, but there are times when they may not recognize someone else’s breaking point—or even their own. If either style of emoting results in a charged interaction, go to the affected party later and apologize for your lack of communication.

“You might say, ‘I was really frustrated and didn’t acknowledge that you were having emotions, and that was important,’” Duffy suggests, “or, ‘I didn’t acknowledge my own and was just blazing through to get to the end results.’”

If you want to break frustrating habits, it’s also important to reflect on your emotional patterns in private. Think about how stress influences your decision making. Is it motivating or anxiety-inducing for you? Can you pinpoint what, exactly, is causing you to clench up?

Duffy’s personal solve involves scheduling a half hour at the end of each day to reflect and try to answer those questions. Once you identify the problem, you can then brainstorm actions.

The problem: You’re in serious need of a confidence boost.

The solve: A lot of advice instructs women to “Be bold!” or “Never take no for an answer!” without factoring in real-life repercussions. But there is a nuanced way to speak up for yourself without thumbing your nose at the consequences—or your colleagues.

“Think about your boldness and confidence as the dial of a volume,” says McGoodwin. “You don’t always watch TV on volume 50. You watch it at 10 and turn it up for really important moments or when there’s a lot of noise around you.”

Those moments become easier to recognize over time. For example, when someone pushes back against an idea you believe in, you might say, “I really think we should strongly reconsider that,” before explaining why you think it should be different. But those moments don’t occur 24/7. Turn up the dial when it’s needed so not every interaction becomes a battle.

“I realized that my emotions [at work] had come out in a physical manifestation, which meant I wasn’t dealing with them,” says Mollie West Duffy (right), co-founder of Liz and Mollie.

On the other hand, if your problem is that you never speak up, Kara Brothers-Phillips, a Career Contessa coach and product specialist at Google, suggests making yourself visible and heard in small ways until you feel safe to do so.

Brothers-Phillips recently set a goal to make herself uncomfortable once a week by speaking with senior leadership at Google, something she had trouble doing in the past. Now when she sees them in the hallway or in an elevator, she asks them how their day is going rather than silently worrying if she seems too unimportant to matter.

“I check that box and feel confident because I approached them—and my face is in their memory,” she says.

The problem: Timing is everything, and that becomes an issue when advocating for yourself.

The solve: Younger workers often get a bad rap for requesting raises, promotions, and other forms of career advancement before managers believe they are ready. Ambition can be a great thing, says Schweitzer, but evidence is better. Before you get frustrated about a supervisor’s resistance, make sure you’ve actually done your job.

“Some of the best advice I can offer is to be your own best advocate,” says Schweitzer. “That said, it’s incredibly important that when you get to a job, you put your head down and work. It’s more important to have accomplished something and then talk about it than to talk about something and then accomplish it. You really want to be the person who leads with your results.”

When the time comes to make asks like these, considering the subtext and emotions of higher-ups, not just yourself, is crucial.

“If your company is in the news, if something major is happening within the company, or if you know about something big that’s coming, read the room,” she says. “Think about whether the company is in a place to make that decision because, in a lot of situations, you only get one chance. You don’t want to lose that chance on something you actually had full control over, which is knowing that this might not have been the right time.”

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