Posts Tagged ‘board room’

Bring your emotions to work

16th May 2011

This post is one in a series where I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. If that baffles you (and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, why wouldn’t it?), you can read my explanation here. You can find earlier posts in the series under the ‘How to be a Leader’ category in the navigation bar to the left.

5. Q: How to be a leader? A: Bring your emotions to work

Beijing-China-A-visitor-l-017Montaigne had an intense and passionate friendship with another Bordeaux lawyer, Etienne de La Boetie, during his mid-twenties. They both wrote about the relationship in terms that look sexual to the twenty first century eye but Sarah Bakewell plants the relationship in the context of the time – this was not about sex. It was a big deal to Montainge, even without that, all the more so when La Boetie died a lingering death under Montaigne’s vigil only six years after they met. As many as eighteen years later, Montaigne would write in his journal about being ‘overcome by such painful thoughts about La Boetie’. He loved his friend, he hated his loss and he felt no shame in saying both.

When people write at work a strange fog often settles on them. Unseen, it guides their fingers to type strange words on the page. They write ‘Dear sir or madam’ instead of ‘Hello’, ‘Please accept our most sincere apologies’ instead of ‘I’m sorry’, ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. Somehow, their writing style regresses to a time before their birth. When I ask them why, the answer is often because they believe it’s what’s expected of them and even when I can disprove that, they are often initially uncomfortable with being personal, being direct, being themselves. It’s not just writing, either. Most jobs require people to dress differently than they would at home, sometimes to wear a uniform as if they were part of the machinery of the place rather than themselves. Those dealing with customers may have to follow a script: speak someone else’s words rather than their own. They may be forced to smile when they feel rubbish or even when it’s cultural madness for them. Even those of us for whom the rules are unwritten receive a thousand signals that tell us every day what’s expected around here and what’s expected is usually cool rationality, not the hot heady stuff of feelings. In meetings you might sometimes see some pantomime anger but where are love, joy, sadness and fear? For many, arriving at work is coming to an arid, cold place where they have been taught to wear a set of bland behaviours like a cheap suit, except this one fits where it doesn’t touch.

Since Aristotle, logic has dictated Western thought and business is the ultimate pretence of the supremacy of rationality over feelings. I’ve lost count of the number of times my nascent leadership career was littered with injunctions to ‘calm down’ and ‘stop being so emotional’. In the way that things work, I’ve also lost count of the times that I’ve said similar things to others but one of the lessons of the history of human behaviour is that suppression never works for long. Like ‘Whack the Gopher’ keeping things under the surface in one place only makes them bob up somewhere else and where hidden emotions bob up at work is in all the places they cause damage to individuals, to bystanders and, ultimately, to the firm. Until Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence, even the word ‘emotion’ was absent from management training, executive education and business schools but even Goleman talks about emotion in the context of assessment and control, not acknowledgement and response. One of the standard texts of organisational behaviour, Greenberg and Baron’s ‘Behaviour in Organisations’ (2010) contains hardly any reference to emotion beyond Goleman. Strangely, they devote 28 of their 720 pages to ‘job satisfaction’, something that I’ve never seen achieved for an individual without an emotional connection to the firm and it’s people.

This is all the more odd when leadership is considered beyond the firm. Buddhists recognise that emotions are real negative and positive forces, and urge disciples to feel emotions, channelling their energy towards something of value. To always accept strong emotions as part of who and what we are and openly consider them in choosing how we act. The military acknowledge and work with fear and love in the development and leadership of teams. Politicians engage the emotions daily: Baghot in the Economist this week compares Nick Clegg’s cool reasoning with the more visceral Tories who defy the rational to engage the emotions of their core vote.

I was lucky to work some years back with Stephen Fineman who’s done more than most to understand and study emotion at work. He points out the cost and futility of pursuing the simply rational at work. He discusses the value of genuine engagement with people’s feelings. He identifies that literature, poetry and drama are as useful as science in understanding people and he describes how stories and metaphor can be at the heart of a really useful change to the way that feelings can be part of work. You won’t find his work on the curriculum on any MBA programme, but he did more to change my thinking about work than most that are.

So to those that aspire to leadership, I say be like Montaigne and never be shy of your emotions or those of others. People are people first and employees second and you will be happier and more successful if you accept their right and your own to be messy, hot and heady sometimes. Bring your emotions to work and let others do the same.