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On Chivalry and Emotional Restraint in Public Accounting

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When I started in public accounting we did a Skittle icebreaker on the first day in the office and each color had an associated question. My random Skittle question was, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” and I remember saying: “Nerves of Steel.” Most people thought it was a unique response.

To this day, I still think it’s the best answer. Emotions can be cumbersome when you have a job to do, whether fear, anger or sadness. I’m not saying you should become a robot, but no one wants to work with someone who’s hot under the collar. It’s annoying to tiptoe around to get things done for fear of getting berated. Or, heaven forbid you break down in tears after a particularly hard day; you may get labeled the office crybaby. That’s not a great reputation to have at work.

Keeping your composure under fire is not a new sought-after trait. Emotional restraint has long been seen as a valuable skill in many cultures and can be communicated in a variety of ways:

  • Stoics have taught for centuries that feelings have no place in society, teaching self-control and encouraging humans to act rationally in all situations, since our “social and mental abilities” separate us from animals.
  • Yoga and meditation are popular among professionals since the practice helps people quiet their mind and feel less destructive emotion such as anxiety or fear.
  • Retired Admiral William McRaven, the man who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and a distinguished keynote speaker, spoke last weekend in Charleston, SC about the lessons he’s learned in life. He focused on the role of chivalry and that how you conduct yourself matters. For example, he observed a side effect in the SEALs under his command who were trying to “blend in” with the enemy: They lost the innate desire to act with chivalry. It wasn’t just the long beard and less appointed clothing you’d expect to see from a military officer. Personalities began to shift, and temperament became more coarse and “ungentlemanly” even outside the wire. And with chivalry, he wasn’t talking about knights on horseback rescuing damsels in distress. It’s was about decency, compassion, and understanding in our interactions with each other.

The underlying thread is that if you can stay calm, cool, and collected in high-pressure situations, you’ll perform better. If you can keep your emotions out of it, you’re going to go farther in life and business. But, it goes beyond just keeping cool, extending into how courteous we act under pressure.

Then why do we suck at it so much?

It’s hard enough in an average work environment, but it seems like public accounting is ripe for all kinds of situations where emotions get the best of us. Deadlines are constant and unforgiving; clients can be demanding or frustratingly indifferent. Coworker relationships have an underlying competitive element that can build tension. Plus, it’s a profession long dominated by men who are either volatile or repressed. It’s a recipe for emotional chaos.

For example, you receive a nasty, passive-aggressive email from a coworker about a missed deadline and they CC’ed your boss and the client. Tell me this hasn’t happened to you. I’ll wait. What happened to checking to see if you’re out sick or unexpectedly out of the office first?

Humans are dramatic and messy. Emotions are hard to control, and we can blame the amygdala hijack for that. While absolute Stoicism can be over the top — expressing some emotion is healthy and keeps you sane — acting rationally and not lashing out when you’re having a bad day is not too much to ask. Chivalry is always warranted even if the whole office seems either out to get you or piss you off.

I’d also argue that it’s not just men or women; most everyone has trouble keeping their emotions in check. I’ve seen both men and women lose their temper and stomp around. Unfortunately, this topic has an inherent gender bias and double standard when it comes to emotional outbursts.

That is, it’s okay for men to lose their cool and yell to get a project back on track. That’s “strong leadership.” Women, on the other hand, are judged for the same behavior and labeled as “difficult” or “bossy” or “bitchy.” And because no one likes a “bossy” or “bitchy” woman in charge, it can negatively affect a woman’s performance or hinder her advancement. Oh, and don’t get me started on crying. If a woman cries at work, say about a bad performance review, it’s because she’s “emotional.” A man breaking down in tears means he’s “a sensitive guy.”

Ultimately, no one at work wants to be on the receiving end of your inability to keep it together. It’s never warranted to express rage at work, especially if it’s directed at others and results in verbal and emotional abuse or bullying. Count to 10, go to the bathroom, or take a walk before you lose it. Your colleagues (and clients) will be grateful, I promise.

Image: Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash