We’re told to bring our authentic selves to work. But sometimes less, or no, emotion will get you much further ahead than wearing your heart on your sleeve.
It’s your Poker Face, and it’s underrated in the workplace these days.
A Poker Face can be worth 1,000 words in some cases — expressing much more than a plea for help, cry for forgiveness or demand for fairness. And it comes at very little cost to your workplace reputation or authority.
Poker Face can pay dividends
“‘Just be yourself.’ That’s popular work advice these days, with more and more companies encouraging people to ‘be authentic’ and bring their whole selves to work,” says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and author of Think Again, on his podcast Work Life. “But when we get real at the wrong time or in the wrong way, it can backfire.”
Those are problems with being too authentic.
For one, showing emotions to any extreme doesn’t bode well for workers — and it’s even worse for women and minorities. Unwritten “feelings rules” apply differently to men and women, according to separate studies: Angry women are considered belligerent. Angry men are considered assertive. There’s a racial discrepancy, too: The emotions of Black and other minority populations are often more scrutinized than white employees’ outward feelings, a study out of Oxford University found.
But a Poker Face is fair and accepted across genders, race and ages.
Benefits of Poker Face
Now, get the image of a gritty poker player down on his luck out of your head. A good Poker Face at the right time won’t leave you down on your luck.
In fact, maintaining a Poker Face doesn’t necessarily mean you have to suppress feelings or be dishonest. It’s more about practicing emotion regulation, according to Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. Executing a good Poker Face is about being aware of your facial expressions and body language and using them strategically.
When to use Poker Face
Realize, your Poker Face isn’t right for every office moment. Quite the contrary: Concealing too much too often will make you seem untrustworthy and unbelievable.
But Wilding suggests you use it when:
- You’re in charge of something serious. It might be a sales negotiation or department business meeting. As the leader, you’ll want to take an authoritative approach. When you’re a participant, be more open.
- You must accomplish goals. If emotions could hinder hitting a goal, use your game face. If it’s less formal — such as building rapport — be more yourself.
- You need to keep your guard up. You know when you’re dealing in dicey circumstances or with someone who will take advantage of any vulnerability.
- It’s appropriate. In some cultures and situations, a Poker Face is not an appropriate response.
Control your ‘tells’
In the game of poker, opponents look for signs their opponent is nervous and bluffing. Those are their “tells.” In the workplace, you have them, too. They’re often nervous habits — such as fidgeting, tapping or running your fingers through your hair.
Be aware of yours. Ask family and friends to identify them, if you can. Then avoid them when you’re in a Poker Face-situation.
Even with a Poker Face, others will manage to rile up your nerves — and make it more difficult to maintain face. Wilding suggests:
- Grounding techniques: While staying focused on the conversation or situation, ground yourself by counting backward, clenching and releasing muscles or zoning in on an eye level object.
- Visualization: Picture your favorite peaceful, calming scene and yourself in it — be it a beach, trail or hometown.
- Cold exposure: Suck on an ice cube, get breath of fresh, cold air or hold an ice cold glass of water.
Know your emotional limits
Wearing a Poker Face doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t bring emotions to work. Just identify those emotions ahead of addressing the situation and know your limits on revealing them.
“You shouldn’t have to hide your opinions and emotions at work. Or your ideas and identities. But it doesn’t hurt to reflect on the many different selves that are already part of who you are — and the selves you might become as you evolve,” says Grant. It makes sense to be thoughtful about which ones you share — and when, where and how you express them.
“You don’t have to bring your whole self to work. I think the best authenticity is more about bringing your best self to work — the one that brings the best out in others, too.” Grant continues.
Beware Poker Face overboard
Know this: You can overdo the Poker Face — even if that’s the stoic person you are.
“Be yourself. Unless yourself is an asshole,” David Sedaris told graduates at the Oberlin College commencement in 2018. “‘How will I know if I’m an asshole?’ you’re probably wondering. Well, pay attention. Do people avoid you? Every time you park the car or do your laundry do you wind up engaged in some sort of conflict?”
Seriously, smile more often than not in the workplace.