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Wearing Your Stress on Your Sleeve

by Guest Writter
Jackie Barretta, Author, Primal Teams

Sometimes it pays to reveal your emotions. I remember the day my boss called me into his office and asked me to address an angry complaint from one of our largest customers. While he visibly kept his cool as he explained the customer’s concerns, I could tell that the customer’s phone call had deeply upset him. After a brief chat, I left his office to deal with the situation, casually saying, “I’m sorry you had to field such an upsetting call first thing in the morning.” He actually snapped at me. “I am not upset!” That reaction dropped my trust in him a few notches. If he couldn’t own up to his true feelings, what else might he be trying to hide?

You may think you must remain cool, calm, and collected, even in the most trying situations, but sometimes you need to let people know that you experience the same human emotions we all feel during times of stress. When you try to hide your feelings, you don’t fool anyone but yourself. Your facial expressions, body language, and other physiological signals reveal your innermost feelings, no matter how hard you try to hide them. When people see those signals, they lose a little bit of trust in your authenticity as a leader. Worse, you rob yourself of the vital energy you need to solve the very problem that has been causing the stress.

In 1997, William Doherty, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, published research in The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior indicating that people rapidly see and emulate the emotions of a speaker, even during a relatively bland workplace conversation. I immediately picked up my boss’s stress signals, his facial expressions and body language and unwittingly started to mimic them.[1]

No matter how carefully you try to fake a good mood, you reveal your actual emotions in many subtle ways. Even if you display an angry or sad face for only a few milliseconds and then catch yourself and put on a neutral expression, people will unconsciously emulate the negative and experience the corresponding moods.[2] And don’t think you can fool anyone by pasting on a smile, because only about ten percent of us are able to fake a genuine smile.[3]  Plus, a Harvard Business Review article published in 2001 reports that people transmit invisible signals that can be detected by others. Amazingly, we all share emotions through the powerful electromagnetic field every human body emits.[4]

The effort to conceal a bad mood can also backfire. You can suffer from the effects of emotional dissonance, a state in which your emotional display differs markedly from what you really feel. Maintaining the façade can take a huge emotional toll on you, resulting eventually in burnout or emotional numbness.[5]

Revealing your stress without screaming or putting your fist through a wall will help you cope with and get past it. Far from making you appear weak or overly emotional, it will reveal your humanity and engender respect and trust. At the first signs of stress, pause for a moment and pay attention to your body’s signals. Do you feel your heart beating faster? Does your stomach burn?  Instead of clamping down on those reactions, let yourself feel them, talk about them, and watch them begin to dissipate. Before long you can move past them to a more optimal emotional state. [6]

We live in stressful times. Business moves at the speed of light, and problems have become the rule rather than the exception. You will feel stress. You can’t help it. But you can help the way you manage with it by acknowledging it, revealing it to those around you, and dealing directly with it. Trying to hide it will only make you and everyone around you miserable and incapable of solving whatever problem caused the stress in the first place.

1 – R. W. Doherty. (1997). The Emotional Contagion Scale: A Measure of individual Differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21: 131–154.

2 – U. Dimberg, M. Thunberg, & K. Elmehed. (2000). Unconscious Facial Reactions to Emotional Facial Expressions. Psychological Science, 11: 86–89.

3 – M. Duenwald. (2005). The Physiology of Facial Expressions. Discover Magazine (January).

4 – D. Goleman, R. Boyatzis, & A. McKee. (2001). Primal Leadership: The Hidden Drier of Great Performance. Harvard Business Review (December).

5 – S. Shuler & B. D. Sypher. (2000). Seeking Emotional Labor: When Managing the Heart Enhances the Work Experience. Management Communication Quarterly, 14: 50.

6 – S. G. Hofmann. (2008). Cognitive Processes During Fear Acquisition and Extinction in Animals and Humans: Implications for Exposure Therapy of Anxiety Disorders. Clinical Psychology Review, 28, 2 (February): 199– 210.


About the Author

For the past 25 years Jackie Barretta has worked as a Fortune 500 C-level executive and Big Four consultant in the Information Technology industry. She has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through major challenges and has engineered numerous major transformations. Her book, Primal Teams, shows leaders how to harness the optimal emotions that fuel extraordinary performance.

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