By Tiffany McNeil
Today I saw a man lying on the street. He had on nice shoes and decent clothes and appeared to be holding something (an inhaler?) to his mouth. He didn’t look homeless; he looked sick. When I got closer, I realized it was a cell phone, but still.
“Are you ok?
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Can I help you in some way?”
“I’m not sure.”
“OK, what’s wrong?”
“Well, for starters, I just broke up with my girlfriend. She kicked me out of the house, and I don’t know where to go.”
Ugh. Honestly – that’s what I thought. Ugh. I said polite things, ensured he was not in need of medical care, told him that unfortunately I don’t know if there are any shelters nearby, wished him well. In parting he said, “Thank you – you’re the only person who’s stopped. But yes, medically, I’m fine.”
I spent the next 15 minutes or so processing this. I am in no way willing to sit and listen to this poor chap’s problems. I’m nice, but I’m not that nice. That said, I can’t help but think that he left me with half of the sentence. “Medically, I’m fine, but no, I’m not ok.” This poor guy would rather be ill than be sad.
What does any of this have to do with work? Well, as it happens, just last week I was thinking about how dramatic an influence emotions have in the workplace. We do all kinds of silly crazy things to manage for the emotions of our counterparts and superiors. I don’t know about you, but there are moments in my work life when I am completely livid. (How can I do my job well if people don’t tell me what’s going on? How could that person make me move a meeting and then not bother to show up? That kind of hyperbolic stuff.) I usually settle myself down before anyone notices, but honestly, I see much more drama at my relatively drama-free workplace than I ever do at home.
So, the story is a bit of a tangent, but I guess it just helped clarify my thinking on this. I think where I landed is that emotions are important at work. Not important in the “this guy will be mad – make sure you’re prepared” kind of way. Just generally important. I’m not the first to say that life’s too short to not enjoy your job. I also think, though, that life’s too short to not care about it.
Thinking back over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve delivered a lot of bad news. I have recommended abandoning projects that were 7 years in the making. I have told the creators of television programs that their ideas just plain didn’t work. I’m not alone – we do this a lot in the insights world. I’m sure you know what I mean. Those days are the kind of days that loom murkily ahead from the moment you get that “err. . . not going as well as hoped” email until that share-out meeting is over – and the time in between, for me at least, is ridden with clenched jaw days and anxiety dream nights (you know – I’m late! I forgot something! Those dreams.)
During those times, I always tell myself that it’s just work – it’s just a project – you have data on your side – don’t worry. . . and all of that is completely true. BUT, turns out it really matters. I SHOULD dread it. If I care about my job, if I’m passionate about my work and my teams, then this is truly upsetting stuff. Also, in my experience, bad news in particular tends to elicit anxiety, defensiveness, and finger-pointing even among the most level-headed colleagues. Guess what? They care, too.
So, what’s my point? I think it goes back to my soap box about authenticity (I wrote about that once before, and I like pretending I’m some sort of blog celebrity. Work with me here). Emotions matter. ESPECIALLY at work, they matter. I sometimes feel that we pretend they don’t. Or at least that they shouldn’t. And I’m not so sure. Yes, the finger-pointing and defensiveness is counter-productive, but the fact is it comes from a place of genuine passion – of making decisions and taking risks and truly believing that what we’re doing makes sense and will achieve the desired outcome. The only way around that is to stop caring, and my suspicion is that ambivalence only begets boredom and mediocrity.
A couple years ago, I found myself really hating my job. As one does on occasion (for the record, I LOVE my job). This continued for a few weeks. . . and I’m not sure when it clicked, but it did – it just clicked: I was sad. I was sad because I had recommended we stop working on something. I didn’t think we had the ability to make it work either technically or financially, and so we stopped working on it. The team got rotated onto different projects, the momentum stopped, and the sense of common purpose? Gone.
It’s depressing. And it should be. This empathy for our partners and colleagues and this passion for our projects – all this emotion is exactly what makes us good at this. And the fact is if you’re not seriously disappointed by the bad news, you don’t get to be seriously elated by the good.
C.S. Lewis apparently said “The pain I feel now is the happiness I felt before. That’s the deal.”