Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Don’t Invest More Emotion Than You Are Willing To Sacrifice

At some point in a podcast series by Seth Godin he advises that you never give your house for collateral on a loan for your business. Of course you don’t want to lose your house, but that wasn’t his reason. If you put your house on the line – and put your family on the line – then you are putting up something you aren’t willing to lose. And so you have an upper bound on your risk: you no longer will be willing to make the decisions that could bankrupt your business.

I’ve been thinking about emotional labor lately. In management it’s one of the more challenging things for me: because there’s a lot more emotional labor to be done in management, but also because I feel I can fuck it up much worse. I also see all the missed opportunities to put in emotional labor, and I wonder about what I can or should ask of my reports in addition to what I ask of myself. Emotional labor is checking in with how people feel (explicitly or implicitly). It’s not letting conflict slide. It’s making sure to explicitly appreciate your coworkers. It’s giving bad news fast. And negative feedback. It’s hard work, an uncomfortable hard.

Emotional investment is something different. It’s what you expect of yourself. It’s caring. I find the emotional labor hard; it is because of my emotional investment that I want to do it anyway.

I’ve started to question the value of emotional investments. There’s passion, yes. And some degree of having skin in the game – not just wanting to perform sufficiently, or be well regarded, but a direct interest in the success of the project. But you can make the wrong kinds of investments, invest something that’s too hard to lose. Your self-worth, your identity… these are investments you shouldn’t ask yourself to make, and I’d say no thank you when I see someone else offering that kind of investment if I could. It’s the kind of investment that will lead to bad decisions: sticking with safe choices, avoiding bad feedback, being afraid to ship, being afraid to do the work you think is important but you aren’t sure you can achieve successfully. Or it may embolden you to drive off an emotional cliff, to burn out.

Sadness, frustration, even anger are okay emotions to have about our work. It’s okay for work to make us feel, so long as we can bounce back from those feelings. One kind of emotional labor is to own and respond to your feelings.

With a growing skepticism of emotional investment I find myself valuing professionalism a bit more: professionalism as action and impact through discipline. But I also think discipline can used as a substitute for engagement. I’m still wary of professionalism… wary of finding a substitute for passion, skeptical those substitutes are genuine, unsure if “performance” is a good criteria. But I’m feeling more open. (And of course I much rather Accounting be staffed professionally than with passion, so it must depend on desired outcomes.)

At this moment I am trying to disinvest. For my own health, but I also hope to improve my effectiveness. It’s uncomfortable, feels cold, like I have to withdraw in order to set new terms of engagement. But what do I have to lose? Maybe a little less.

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.