Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Emotions At The Workplace

Here is a sampling of articles about emotions at the workplace, when they occur, what their presence means, whether they are good or bad, and so on.

Bad Moods And "Creativity"

First, there is an article about a recent study I've already mentioned in my blog. A Rice University research team found that "being in a foul mood actually may help get those creative juices flowing." They finished their research convinced that "creativity is at its highest when a mix of negative and positive moods is supported." Uh-huh... Maybe in Hollywood or a Soho art gallery, but not any place where I've ever worked. But then maybe what I do wouldn't be classified as "creative". And that's the rub. Applying that term "creative" to any business activity is suspect to begin with, and already lands us in the realm of bullshit. Pretending to tolerate "negative emotions" only adds to the hypocrisy, and piles the bullshit higher and higher.

The Rice researchers did produce some common sense findings however. They recommend that managers should offer their employees feedback, trust and information about "job-related decisions". When employees are provided these three things, they are "more likely to be creative both when they are in positive moods and when they are in negative moods." But, if management is being nice to them, why would they be in a bad mood anyway? Unless it had something to do with their lives outside of work - or about work, but beyond the control of the managers, in which case managerial behavior might simply have no effect at all.

A sociology professor who assessed the study approved of its methodology, but offered three qualifications. The study was conducted "among workers on a creative team charged with developing new, creative designs..." The point here is that when being "creative" is essentially your job, becoming more "creative" simply means improving your job performance. Getting the desired feedback and information about "job-related decisions" may put the fear of God into an employee, generating fear and anxiety that pushes him to work harder, despite whether he feels "inspired" or not. Similar managerial behavior, and similar resulting emotions, could motivate an assembly line worker or a waiter just as well, their "creativity" notwithstanding. The study also examined only certain emotions - distress, fear and nervousness. No Van Gogh-like temperamentalism or volatile transcendence of the sort that many associate with "creativity" came into play, only the craven emotions of the dispossessed that make workers desperate to improve their situation. The study was also not longitudinal, in that it did not judge "creativity" by its long term results, but apparently by some glib managerial say-so that the workers were actively engaged at being more "creative". That may only have meant, in a shop where "creativity" was synonymous with doing your job, that the workers were anxiously scrambling to mitigate the whip-crack of managerial feedback, and no more.

Crying On The Job

Next, there is an article - widely reprinted throughout the online press - on whether or not it is "OK to cry at work". The item is inane, and may have been reprinted solely for its inanity. The bottom line is that "emotions are still a squishy subject in the workplace", that most experts believe it is more prudent to restrain strong emotions at work, and that - if you have to cry - excuse yourself to cry in private, and God help you if you are a man. Amen.

Boredom At Work

Finally, there is an article about the scourge of boredom at the workplace. For me, asking a cubicle dweller if he's bored is like asking if the pope is Catholic. "But psychologists believe this boredom epidemic is no joke," the article insists, adding, "Boredom in the workplace... could be more damaging than overwork." Apparently, a third of all British workers are afflicted by boredom. (Only a third?)

The causes of this "epidemic" are rife. Mindless paperwork, the ennui of waiting powerlessly for others to make decisions, the low attention span and inflated expectations of young workers stymied in their quest for instant gratification, and the stale lack of novelty felt by mid-career workers who yearn for something new but lack the balls to reach for it. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the venerable guru of "flow", suggests that employees "restructure the job in [their own minds]" into something that transfixes their attention and pulls them along by its own momentum. Easier said than done, methinks. Other "boredom-busting techniques" involve "gaining control", becoming more "assertive" and demanding "new challenges that stretch your abilities". Ho-hum. The hackneyed literature of job motivation is itself enough to induce tedium, and its precepts ring more hollow than ever. Increasing automation and bureaucratization has only made workers more passive, stripping them of the free will they need to make their lives interesting, and the situation will only get worse, not better. My only hope is that the "science" of management will someday learn to utilize our capacity for action more effectively, and leave our emotions the hell alone.

"Striking a creative balance at work" from The Daily Record (New Jersey)
"Crying on the job. When is it acceptable?" from South Bend Tribune
"Dulling Down" from The Guardian (UK)

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