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Coming to the Festival of Books: Anne Kreamer

April 29, 2011 |  8:20 am

Annekreamer

In the 1990s, Anne Kreamer was worldwide creative director for Nickelodeon and Nick at Night. Her experiences there -- including getting yelled at by Sumner Redstone -- helped set up some of the questions she asked in researching her new book, "It's Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace."

Kreamer will be at the Festival of Books on Sunday on the 2 p.m. panel, "Finding Life in the Workplace." She answered Jacket Copy's questions via email.

Jacket Copy: Your book looks at the emotion of the workplace by combining statistical research with what we know about the chemistry of the human brain and body. That seems very... unemotional. Can you tell us a little bit about your approach?

Anne Kreamer: My interest in the subject of emotion in the workplace crept up on me, starting from a very personal point of view, then growing in gradual concentric circles to include statistical research and neuroscience. A few years ago I was chatting with my former colleague, Sara Levinson, who has been a top executive within both deeply male (MTV, the NFL) and deeply female (ClubMom, the women’s group at Rodale publishing) professional environments. She asked me a funny question: Did I know any woman who had never cried at work? While I’d obviously never conducted a crying-on-the-job poll of my friends, I realized that no, I probably didn’t. And certainly I had cried, years earlier, when I was a senior vice president at Viacom’s Nickelodeon and my uber-boss, Sumner Redstone, called me for the first time -- and screamed at me.

With that one cocktail-party question, I set off on a two-year journey exploring emotion – negative emotions, positive emotions, all emotions -- in the modern workplace. I started by conducting informal interviews with former colleagues and friends, which then led me to widen my scope to include hundreds of working Americans on a cross-country tour. I talked to neuroscientists and psychiatrists and psychologists and organizational scholars, but I realized that I also wanted some kind of quantitative baseline, a statistically valid national portrait of emotion on the job, to provide a context for my one-on-one interview findings.

After delving deeper into the relevant literature, I discovered that while there are myriad studies looking at emotion, nearly all were conducted by psychologists or neurobiologists in small, controlled laboratory experiments. Conversely, there were broad anecdotal digests compiled by consultants or social scientists that focused primarily on the skills that might help people to control their problematic emotions. The experimental studies were limited and highly artificial, removed from the multidimensional complexity of actual life at work. And the anecdotal studies tended to lack useful depth. There was nothing I could find that really nailed a basic question: How do Americans experience and express emotions at work these days? 

I knew that the kind of research I was interested in would require a substantial commitment of resources, both human and financial, and it occurred to me that one logical place to turn for help would be an advertising agency. After all, agencies and their research departments are in the business of gathering information about regular people’s attitudes and behaviors, and then microscopically dissecting that data to make it illuminating and useful -- which seemed similar to what I was hoping to do with people’s real-life experiences of emotions at work. So I convinced the giant ad agency J. Walter Thompson to partner with me and conduct two national surveys.

Grounding myself in the statistical and scientific allowed me to toggle back and forth between the insights I gained from my own professional experiences and individual interviews and establish fresh connections and understandings of how emotions drive work and vice-versa.

JC: Is it really all right to cry at work?

AK: The short answer is yes. But tears at work are also a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears -- one can cry too much or too little -- there is an optimum level where tears communicate compassion and empathy. Two big findings came out of my two national surveys. One is that people – women and men -- at all levels of management reported that they had cried at work during the past year. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that people who cry cannot achieve top management positions. Another fascinating insight was that people who reported crying at work also reported that they were not unhappy in their jobs. Crying was something that happened every once in a while and was just not a big deal for them. I suggest that tears are our natural emotional reset button – increasing our dopamine production, thereby helping to return our bodies to equilibrium – but they are also something akin to the warning lights on our car dashboards. You should pay attention to them – they are a signal communicating that something may be not quite right under the hood. There are many, many different kinds of tears – those of happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, pain, and joy and it’s important, as with warning lights on the dashboard, to figure out which kind you are experiencing and then understand what they are telling you – are you overwhelmed, underappreciated, angry? Then figure out how you want to address those issues. In the book I offer a variety of strategies for how one can do that.

JC: Why do you think we've developed the idea that the workplace should be emotion-free?

AK: Without getting too heavy, this is a notion that goes back to the portrait Plato presented in "Phaedrus" of the battle our souls endure between reason -- depicted as a white horse, “upright and clean-limbed” -- and passion, which Plato depicts as a very different kind of horse, “with thick short neck, black skin ... hot-blooded, consorting with wantonness and vainglory ... hard to control.” Bad things were done to us by our emotions. We made good things happen for us through the discipline of reason.

This POV got reinforced during the 17th century when Rene “I think therefore I am” Descartes imposed a mathematical rigor on the exploration of human knowledge and emphatically reargued the case for reason being the ultimate, refined tool that people have for properly shaping the world. With the Industrial Revolution the factory became the paradigmatic workplace, and ever-larger factories became a manifestation of modern hyper-rationality. Divisions of labor, interchangeable parts, organizational charts, timetables and business schools made factories -– and then offices -– into temples of strict rationalism.

My book tries to illustrate that it is a presumed rationality and a frequently fake, superficial ultrarationality. Through the work of neuroscientists like Antonio D’Amasio, now the head of USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, we now know that emotions are as essential to rational behavior as our strictly cognitive brain functions. You literally can't successfully have one without the other.

I’m suggesting in "It’s Always Personal" that at a moment in time where the distinction between work and home life has never been fuzzier and where the 24/7 permeable membrane between where we feel and where we work has been obliterated, it is time to rethink this outdated perspective.

JC: Are you looking forward to anything in particular at the Festival of Books?

AK: I’m really looking forward to Carolyn Kellogg’s conversation with Jonathan Lethem, a former Brooklyn neighbor. And I bow at the genius of Pico Iyer and am thrilled to be able to hear him.

JC: Will you be doing anything in Los Angeles apart from the festival?

AK: I’m fortunate to have a lot of family in LA. I’ll be staying with my brother-in-law, David Andersen, the genius piano restorer and technician, and his wife, Tanya Ragir, the sculptor. My L.A. niece had a baby two weeks ago so I’m very much looking forward to meeting her and hanging out with another niece who's an assistant professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC. 

Tickets to the L.A. Times Festival of Books panels are available now from Eventbrite.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Anne Kreamer. Credit: Lucy Andersen

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