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The Emotional Labours Of Wendy Pickles.

Leadership Staff developmentTalent and Leadership

Wendy Pickles was a buyer. She was a leader, as well as an employee. She knew a lot of different people at her work. Some were more senior, others juniors and others ranking equal. Each relationship had its own unique mix of expectations on correct emotion display. With suppliers, for instance, she enjoyed some sense of power, but also, she felt, an obligation to remain phlegmatic.

 

Wendy constantly moved through a complex map of differing emotional arenas. Each space required a different emotional display. In the one-to-one meetings with her manager, she forged an easy rapport, yet in front of her colleagues reserve was expected. Not even in the staff canteen, when her colleagues could unwind a little AND emotionally relax. Although she would allow herself a little polite laugh upon hearing a joke that would be tut-tutted in the office.

 

She rather reflected that this mirrored those working in professional services. The calm, analytical approach to facing crises as well as ordering coffees was the hallmark of lawyers and consultants. However, she had noticed, their unique brand of dark humour helped them cope with the unbalance in the power relations with clients. A smirk and a cynical crack was enough to becalm the frustrations within.

 

When Wendy negotiated with suppliers, any emotional displays were strictly suppressed. As with the lawyers, she thought to herself, "keep it professional". Although, she was once taught, by a negotiation ‘guru’ that displayed anger strengthened negotiations, The supplier’s subsequent emotional response (fear, guilt and anxiety over a stained partnership) was likely to improve their offering. Feeling the rage was, by itself, not important. Even faking anger was enough to shift supplier positions.

 

Emotion was not only in corporate exchange, IT seemed to be everywhere. Wendy often felt the strain of ‘being part of the culture’ in her own work, and worried about the effects on her own staff. Did they become jaded and cynical, she worried, and swap jokes at her expense?

 

Wendy recalled a story of Disney workers. The demands of constant high spirits and smiles took a toll on the armies of little helpers. The stresses of constantly acting the part was often taken out on the customers themselves. "Is that belt tight enough, sir?" They would ask as the gasping victim was fastened into the ride. "Let me tighten that…. Just a little tighter now."

 

Cabin crews on aeroplanes faced similar difficulties. Once, a friend, who worked on the airlines, told her of the air stewards’ revenge on the passengers. The frequent changes of air pressure would cause the human body’s innards to seek release for its own stresses. Crew would stalk back and forth down the aisles quietly venting this pressure. "Crop-dusting" she called it.

 

To make a bit of money as a student, Wendy worked in a gym at the university campus. All the employees were expected to show a ‘can do’ attitude. The management didn’t only encourage this, the staff also ruthlessly enforced the acceptable moral order. "You can’t act a positive attitude" they would say. And those colleagues, to whom the constant performance did not come easily, eventually left.

 

Unfortunately, the problems did not leave with them. Issues hung in the air, as staff did not feel empowered to talk about anything ‘negative’. If you had a problem, they thought, it reflected on your own bad attitude and not the company. Upon graduation, she left the gym the same as she found it.

 

Wendy often reflected on these stories and how her own colleagues feel. Huge slogans were painted on the walls of the office. Staff were routinely sent on team-building exercises. The tone from the top was to enforce (or in more Orwellian terms ‘encourage’ or ‘share’) a corporate culture. ‘Happy workers are productive workers’, right? But what if, her furtive thoughts would nag, the effort to wear a false smile itself began to take its toll. Would this effect output?

 

The requirement for uniform emotional reactions – mandated feelings from above – may not fit with a staff member’s personality or current mood. How can we call this ‘empowerment’, she ponded, when we did not allow people to feel happy, sad, excited, emboldened, ashamed, curious, angry or proud in their own way?

 

Do we really know, she would imagine asking her boss, what the effect of this culture code of emotional compliance actually has on staff well-being? But she never felt that it would be right to question this.

 

After a complex mix of trains, Wendy finally returned home exhausted. Although, strangely, she did not feel as though she achieved anything. There was a lot of meetings and chats, but she couldn’t put her finger on what she had worked on today. Sitting back, Wendy Pickles poured herself a glass of beer, and, for the first time in the day, unbound herself from emotional labours.

 

This article is a piece of independent writing by a member of Procurement Leaders’ content team.

 

Jonathan Webb
Posted by Jonathan Webb