I came across the term, ’emotional labor’ during one of the lectures of HRM: Strategy and Practice in my Masters program. The case study we discussed then was about air hostesses and how the good ones did the tough work of emotional labor by showing genuine care to the airline passengers. I couldn’t relate to the idea so much at the point even though I got a good grade in that paper.
In hindsight, I realize that the reason I couldn’t relate to emotional labor at that time was I hardly cared about my career and job back then. During my masters program and before that as an IT consultant, I hardly expended any care to what I did. I wasn’t bringing my whole self to work. Instead, I was saving all my creative energy and insights to things outside of my work such as music, traveling, organizing events for my team members and so on (one of my supervisors did mention this to me once saying I was a different person outside of work). Maybe I was afraid, or maybe I didn’t know that I was supposed to bring my complete self to work at the time. The bottom line is it’s hard to fake emotional labor and people can immediately notice the difference due to the change in energy levels.
But, now I know. The reason I am fulfilled with my work these days is that I have gotten over the fear of expressing my insights and doing the hard work of caring about my work genuinely. Now, I can completely relate to the idea of emotional labor.
I consider Seth Godin as one of my many mentors who I haven’t met personally yet (if you have been following my blog, you would have known this fact by now. I quote him very often). I would like to share some of his views on emotional labor in this blog post.
Here’s what has changed in today’s knowledge economy that’s different from the industrial economy – we get paid for the emotional labor, and attitude we bring to work.
If you worked on the line, we cared about your productivity, not your smile or approach to the work. You could walk in downcast, walk out defeated and get a raise if your productivity was good.No longer.Your attitude is now what’s on offer; it’s what you sell. When you pass by those big office buildings and watch the young junior executives sneaking into work with a grimace on their face, it’s tempting to tell them to save everyone time and just go home.The emotional labor of engaging with the work and increasing the energy in the room is precisely what you sell. So sell it.
That redefines what it means to be lazy in today’s world. We are lazy not because we hesitate to expend our physical labor but, because we hesitate to expend our emotional labor.
The lazy person could nap or have a cup of tea while others got hot and sweaty and exhausted. Part of the reason society frowns on the lazy is that this behavior means more work for the rest of us.But the new laziness has nothing to do with physical labor and everything to do with fear. If you’re not going to make those sales calls or invent that innovation or push that insight, you’re not avoiding it because you need physical rest. You’re hiding out because you’re afraid of expending emotional labor.This is great news because it’s much easier to become brave about extending yourself than it is to become strong enough to haul an eighty-pound canoe.
What the last sentence in the above quote proves is that your competence doesn’t hold as much value as your ability to embrace change and possibilities and to make art.
Emotional labor is all about bringing forth our unique gifts and not just going through the motions. This involves bringing all of our being to our work and not worrying about what others say. It’s about creating art in whatever we do.Every interaction and every task is an opportunity to create art.How can we adopt emotional labor in our work? We can start by not reserving our best for outside of work.Many of us are our most charming and engaging selves in our lives outside of work. We solve interesting problems, and we value people for who they are. What would happen if we brought that type of effort to our jobs? Just imagine the impact we would make.We spend most of our waking hours at work. Let’s make it a place where do some of our best work and make our biggest impact. We don’t have to hold back in our 9–5. We can bring our best selves. Not because we expect to get paid for it, but because it’s the best way to be true to our humanity and ourselves.