Transforming Talk at Work | December 2015



Dear Reader,

Jackie grew increasingly frustrated as she sat in customer service training, listening to her male colleague, George, balk at the idea of being exceptionally welcoming and courteous to their clients in the banking industry. “Patience and understanding . . . those things just don’t come naturally to men,” he’d remarked to the instructor. “Women are just better at that stuff and that’s why they should do it. Then we’ll really knock the customer’s socks off. I’d probably just make matters worse.”

Jackie seethed. This was the third time George tried to relegate prompt and courteous customer service issues as “women’s work” and she was tired of it.

“The truth is,” Jackie spoke up, “using our emotions in service of our clients and our jobs isn’t women’s work. It is hard work, and if we want to maintain a competitive edge in what is essentially a commodity business, we have to set ourselves apart with superb customer service. And that’s the job of everyone who works at the bank, regardless of gender, age, or any other specific characteristic.”

The ruckus in the training room was essentially about emotional labor: managing one’s feelings and associated communication with customers or colleagues to be in alignment with organizational guidelines. In other words, your employer prescribes your emotions and the regulation of your emotions.

In an increasingly service-based economy, emotional labor has moved from traditionally “caring” professions like healthcare and teaching and service related roles like flight attendant and customer service, to encompass some aspect of nearly every job. Even roles carried out by individual contributors with no contact with customers, like software developers, are now bound by at least some degree of emotional labor as employees are required to demonstrate the organization’s values in their everyday work (i.e., being caring team members).

And, as Jackie duly notes, the work of emotional labor is now everyone’s responsibility. It is not owned by any one gender, nor does it belong to any specific role in the organization. We are all in the business of emotional labor.

The next time you are called upon to provide emotional labor, use the following steps to give it your all, without giving depleting yourself.


Reverse Engineer: Emotional Labor

1. Understand it as a job requirement. Just like you may need to manage a budget or a process or a group of people, if you have a job that requires emotional labor (and nearly all of us do, to some extent), see it as part of your job, not something else you have to do.
2. Do it. Don’t think of it as being nice to people (if that’s the form your emotional labor takes) as the icing on the cake. Rather, think of it as the cake itself. Realize that it is a fundamental, non-negotiable part of your job. And, as the Nike ad says, “Just do it.”
3. Be other centered. When your job requires emotional labor, it is necessarily about someone else – not you. Focus on that other person and their needs in the moment. You’ll be less “put out” by the effort it requires and you’ll see it as something that is in service to someone else.
4. Advocate. Insist that anyone can do emotional labor. Just as a dad can hug a child and kiss away a boo-boo, so too can a man connect emotionally with customers, vendors and employees. It is not work that is relegated to one gender or another.
5. Compartmentalize, if necessary. If your job requires a lot of emotional labor (think: nurse, flight attendant or elementary school teacher), you may need to remind yourself that these are work experiences and not your personal relationships. Putting the emotional experiences into the “compartment” labeled “work” may help you disconnect from it when the workday is done.
6. Restore and replenish. Create rituals that restore your energy after a long day of creating positive emotional experiences for others. If you worked a job that required you be on your feet for long periods of time, you would want to follow that with some time off your tootsies to rest those barking dogs. So too with emotional labor. Set boundaries. Create rituals that restore you. And stick to them.


Digest This: Emotional Labor

Tired, Stressed Out, Need a Break? Recognize it, but don’t react. (Forbes)
Recent research shows that emotional labor, a fact of life in the modern workplace, can lead to stress and burnout – both on the job and carried into our personal lives. The author points to a growing body of research shows that mindfulness can lead to less emotional exhaustion and actually make you happier at work.

‘Women are just better at this stuff’: Is emotional labor feminism’s next frontier? (The Guardian)
In her interview with Jennifer Lena, sociologist and professor at Columbia University, author Rose Hackman assesses emotional labor as the next frontier in women seeking equality in the workplace. Emotional labor, while stress-producing and exhausting, is not typically valued by society (although expected) and that lack of value is reflected in low wages.

The Best Managers Are Boring Managers (Harvard Business Review)
The second of three keys to being a good, albeit boring manager, has emotional labor and emotional regulation as a cornerstone. Connecting emotionally with those who report to you and using your emotions strategically will show your employees that it’s not all about you. In fact, it’s all about them.


My Treat: Emotional Labor in One Minute

Seth Godin does a one-minute interview on emotional labor.

Short and sweet!


Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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