A reader writes:
I work at a medium-sized pharmaceutical company. I have direct reports and also work with associates who don’t report to me, but carry out work I create.
I have had problems with Lola, a talented associate who can be (by many accounts) thin-skinned. She has a way of speaking as though she is telling me how to do my job and we just … clash. Recently, she emailed her manager, my manager (Lisa), and our HR partner (Kate) about an incident where she said I was disrespectful to her and she is now so anxious in any interaction with me that she no longer wants to work on my projects. She says I roll my eyes at her in meetings and treat her differently than I treat the other associates. Lisa told me about this. I feel terrible — I don’t want anyone to be afraid of talking to me. Lola was right, I didn’t handle that incident well.
Which brings me to a meeting with Lisa and Kate. Lisa said I am an open book emotions-wise and Lola says “people” are afraid to approach me. Lisa then said that I make a face when disagreeing with someone and that I do roll my eyes at Lola in meetings. I started to shake my head because I couldn’t remember having done that, and Lisa said I was making the face right then, shaking my head and not listening. Kate said maybe what Lisa was seeing wasn’t a conscious thing on my part, but emotions playing across my face. Lisa, in a very serious tone, told me to modulate my facial expressions going forward.
It’s true that I am an open book feelings-wise. When I’m mad, happy, sad, whatever, it shows. I’ve been this way my whole life. People have said they are afraid to approach me because I look intense. I’ve fought against this, tried to rein it in, develop more of a poker face, and it killed my self-esteem because nothing I did seemed to help. A few years ago, I stopped fighting against it since it wasn’t doing any good and decided to accept it. I even decided being an open book could have its good points — I can’t play games, so everyone knows exactly where I stand.
I want to work things out with Lola because it is true that I have been short with her. But I now feel like the problem is really more with Lisa. I’m scared that what she wants — for me to develop a poker face — is something I am not capable of doing. And if I can’t do it to her satisfaction, she won’t let me move up or, worse, she’ll get rid of me. Kate says HR can coach me on modulating my expressions, so I’ll try that, but I’ve been working on it so long anyway, how far am I likely to get in a time frame Lisa is happy with? I’ll ask what happens if I don’t modulate my expressions enough at my next meeting with Lisa.
Am I not cut out for this kind of management? My direct reports seem pretty happy and I have always gotten great reviews on my work output. Lisa is planning to ask Lola for names as to who else has complained and then she will see what they have to say about me. I agreed to that, but it feels like a witch hunt. I’m really worried (and it shows).
Well, if you’re rolling your eyes or looking pissed off, that is genuinely a problem. Those things are overtly hostile, and you can’t be overtly hostile to people at work.
Rolling your eyes at someone is dismissive and contemptuous. It’s not that different from saying out loud “I think you’re an idiot” or “what an asinine remark” or “I don’t respect you.” And you probably agree you can’t say those sorts of things to colleagues and still be thought of as professional or pleasant to work with, right? It’s not that different when you convey those things with your face.
(To be clear, I am not talking about Resting Bitch Face here — the expression your face has when it’s naturally at rest. I’m talking about eye rolls, grimaces, etc.)
Lisa wasn’t out of line to tell you that you need to modulate your facial expressions going forward. You’re communicating when you do things with your face. Obviously there’s some room for grey here — a slight frown might not be a big deal, but eye rolls in particular are always going to be over the line.
I don’t know specifically what you’ve tried in the past to have more of a poker face, but there are some good suggestions from commenters in this post.
One thing I’d recommend that you try with Lola in particular, since she clearly pushes your buttons, is to pretend she’s either (a) an obscenely wealthy patron who pays you enormous sums of money and who you have a vested incentive to be kind to or (b) your elderly grandmother who’s in difficult circumstances and who you have compassion for. Or if you have a loved one who you know can be difficult but who you’d want people to be kind to, (c) Lola is now that person in your head.
Similarly, are there any circumstances where you do manage to control the emotions on your face? Meeting a VIP? In a house of worship, if you’re religious? At a funeral? With a child? If there are times when you do manage to do it, you have the ability to do it. And I get that you might feel like it’s one thing to control your face for an hour, and an entirely different thing to have to do it 40 hours a week … but again, you can’t be sending off hostile signals at work. You just can’t. And frankly, that’s part of what you’re being paid for — to get along reasonably well with people even if you don’t like them, to be reasonably pleasant to work with, and to regulate what emotions you display.
You also asked if you’re not cut out for this kind of management, and the answer is that I don’t know! But I can tell you that if you really can’t control how your face reads, that’s almost certainly going to cause problems for the people you manage at some point. If you’re managing someone who isn’t the brightest, is your face going to show that you think that? In other situations, will your face show impatience, anger, disdain, annoyance? If so, yeah, those are going to be problems for people you have power over.
I don’t want to ignore the issue of you feeling like this is simply impossible for you, and how demoralizing it was when you tried and couldn’t do it in the past. I wonder if it’s something that cognitive behavioral therapy might help with — and if you haven’t tried that, it’s worth considering because I do think you’ll find there are massive advantages (both professional and personal) to not having your face broadcast what you’re thinking every minute.