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Misses with Attitude: Mastering the Poker Face for Career Success

Don't let emotions on the sleeve be your handicap in the workplace

(Image: Thinkstock)

I once interviewed Shanti Das, a powerfully humble veteran of the music business, who told me something I had to bring back to the front of mind during a recent meeting: “This can be a pretty volatile industry sometimes, especially as a woman. You have to keep that poker face.”

I’ve been trying to master that “poker face” for most of my life. And let’s say it’s been quite the uphill battle.

Since childhood, I have been one to wear my emotions on my sleeve and have always been very vocal about my opinion—whether good or bad. If I’m happy or passionate about something or someone, I’ll be all smiles, all talk, and extremely chipper. But if I’m angry or disagree with someone or something, it’s definitely not a secret. It’s quite a challenge for me to hide a miserable disposition once I’m annoyed or upset.

In my adult years, I can say that it has led to an uptick in my low roommate success rate (thus I do not now or ever plan to live with one again) and has also contributed to quite a bit of friction in not-so-comfortable situations of conflict in other areas of my life.

“When you’re upset, everyone can feel it and it makes people uncomfortable,” a former colleague—now friend—once told me. “Its a passive-aggressive control method and a major turn-off.”

I’m not afraid to admit I still struggle with trying to balance my passion for what I feel is right, appropriate or great, with being overzealous or off-putting when people don’t agree with me or when I don’t agree with them.

I think passion is fine in the workplace, and love to see it as a motivator of sorts to make great things happen. But, here are some things that are not so great about wearing your emotions on your sleeve:

1. When I’m upset or appalled by something that is said or done, if I don’t get a handle on it, I begin grinding my teeth (leading to a very obvious temple bulge), my lip quivers and my voice volume raises a few notches. Maybe a frown or grimace will emerge as well. Those triggers, when witnessed, often cause people to shut down in their response, turning interest into disinterest or offense.

2. Once I’m off-balance, I can’t properly respond to an opposing point in a manner that evokes the “I mean business” confidence I came in the room with. Also, the “I don’t like what you’re saying” disposition reflects a disregard of someone else’s professional credibility, opinions or points of reference, and takes focus off the ultimate goal, adding unnecessary roadblocks to getting the job done.

(And most importantly) 3. It’s just plain disrespectful and nasty. Have you ever liked dealing with that rude coworker who sucked her teeth or gave you a look of disgust when you asked for paperwork? Or that coworker who, because they didn’t agree with your idea, instantly showed an expression of sarcasm, writing off your credibility with the curl of a lip?

I’d guess your answer is no.

I’d like to better follow the advice of the many career experts and professional women I’ve interviewed and admired: Take a deep breath, focus on what really matters — bottom lines, not emotions—and think about the big picture, not just the now. Maybe someone did disrespect you, discredit a valid point or disregard your ideas all together. Find a better approach—whether it be a change in timing, the person you pitch to or the manner in which you speak—to get your voice heard and your agenda pushed.

And as my Granny would say to me in my pouty, spoiled childhood moments: “Nobody wants to listen to you or do anything for you with that ugly attitude. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

I challenge myself, and others who may be just as passionately opinionated as I, to each day get better at the poker face—whether its a pleasant but authoritative smile or the traditional straight expression. If you’re more focused on your poker face, you’re more apt to listen, study how to best approach a situation and give it your best.

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