The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

April 20, 2011

The Emotional Workplace

By Steve Motenko

It’s your first day at a new job.  You walk into the building and the receptionist is laughing hysterically at his desk – just overcome with pure delight … so much that he can’t get any words out.  You ask him where HR is.  He’s doubled over; he can’t answer. You wait, he just keeps laughing.  Finally, gasping for breath, he points you down the corridor.

On the elevator, two of your soon-to-be-colleagues are in a heated argument about the new dress code directive.  “Ties!” one of them shrieks.  “I’d like to strangle them with this mandatory tie!”  And he whips it out of his shirt collar and stomps it into the floor. They hardly seem to notice you.

With trepidation, you step out of the elevator into your new office digs.  You’re met by Tiffani, from HR, who is just so excited to see you!  Oh, this is the most wonderful place to work, you’re not going to believe it!  We all just can’t get over how lucky we are to be working in a place with such fabulous people doing such important work!

She shows you to your new office, which you share with Jeffrey.  Jeffrey raises a limp arm to shake your hand, then recoils.  “Why are you looking at me like that!”  he says, and dissolves into racking sobs….  Your new boss walks in, starts to introduce herself to you, notices Jeffrey, and rolls her eyes in utter disgust.  “Oh, come on, not again!,” she yells at him.  “For once can you just pull yourself together!”

And you mutter to yourself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

The next day you wake up again and think, well, I’ll try this one more time before I quit.  The over-the-top emotionality – positive and negative – of everyone you met yesterday was just more than you could handle.  Maybe it’ll be different today.

You walk into the building.  Day 2.  The laughing receptionist is stone-faced.  “Oh, yes, you,” he says, and turns back to his computer.

In the elevator, it’s the same two guys.  “Still upset about the dress code?” you say to one, trying to make conversation.  But his face is expressionless.  “Tie – no tie – it doesn’t matter,” he says.  It’s not even resignation on his face.  It’s … nothing.  He just doesn’t care.

And neither does Tiffani from HR – her bubbly ebullience from yesterday is gone, replaced by a total lack of interest.  Same with your officemate Jeffrey.  His tears are dried, but he’s not happy.  He’s not sad.  He’s not angry, he’s not afraid.  He’s pretty much a robot.

So which workplace would you choose?  The one with too much emotion, or the one with none?  On the one hand, of course it’s a false choice.   But if what you really expect is a consistent pleasantness with no emotion … well, that is every bit as unreal as both of the scenarios above.  It isn’t human.  It’s the Stepford Company.

Our culture is embarrassed by emotions, and so it tells us to leave them at the workplace door – tells us they’re messy, embarrassing, and they get in the way of getting the work done.  Our culture pretends that we can be interested and motivated without emotion.  Or our culture says positive emotion is okay (as long as it’s not over the top), but there’s no place for negative emotions.  Like there’s such a thing as a one-sided coin.

Our culture is wrong.  Emotions drive all our motivations and all our decisions.  Strip away emotion, and you strip away the will to live, let alone the will to work.

In the book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman and his co-authors say, “For too long, managers have seen emotions at work as noise cluttering the rational operation of organizations.  But the time for ignoring emotions as irrelevant to business has passed.  Great leadership works through the emotions.  If people’s emotions are pushed toward enthusiasm, performance can soar; if driven toward rancor and anxiety, they’ll be thrown off stride.”

So if you think productivity is all about emotion-free performance management, or incentives, somebody needs to drag you into the 21st Century.  What it’s all about is maximizing the intelligence of the team, which is all about relationships, which is all about conversations, which is all about managing the emotions behind them.  And in that mandate – “managing the emotions behind the conversations” is a lifetime of learning for anyone who is a boss, works for a boss, or for that matter, wants to be a part of society.


About the Author

Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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