Bourree Lam: What’s missing in the way companies treat people?
Susan David: Organizations still have this view that’s a throwback to the industrial age. It sees people as machines. The reason that I say that it’s like the industrial age is there’s this idea that if you put information into people, that you’ll get behaviors out of the other end. We’re dealing with humans here. The way organizations are structured is from a machine-age mentality.
Lam: Many companies are now deeply concerned about how engaged their employees are. How does that interplay with the old mandate that people should be happy at work as part of their jobs?
David: What’s clear in the research is that a workplace that helps people work with their experiences is going to be more effective.
Working individuals going through a difficult experience will say, “I should just be happy, at least I have a job.” They try to rationalize their way out of emotions. A core part of emotional agility is the idea that our emotions are critical; they help us and our organizations. For example, if a person is upset that their idea was stolen at work, that’s a sign that they value fairness. Instead of being good or bad emotions, we should see emotions as containing useful data.
Positive emotions, like being happy, can help with particular kinds of thinking and particular kinds of work. But negative emotions can help us in the workplace to be more effective thinkers, to dig into the facts of what may go wrong. To mandate that we should just be positive at work takes away from the idea that emotions have evolved to help us adapt.
Susan Cain, who wrote the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, talks about how there’s been a whole exclusion of introverts in the workplace, and a mandating of extroversion. In the same way, I think there’s an overvaluing of positivity in a way that undervalues the full range of emotional experience.
Bourree Lam: How do you do help organizations, and the people inside them, with emotions and motivation?
Susan David: I’ll often be called into organizations after they’ve had a crisis, similar to the United crisis for example. Something has gone awry, and how people have responded, reacted, or behaved is not effective. What happened to enable this ineffectiveness?
Even though all organizations will say we need people who are adaptable, able to be inclusive, thinking through outcomes effectively, when there’s a lot of change and stress, people start to engage in black-and-white thinking. They start to become inflexible and unable to adapt to the situation at hand. I try to understand where the organization is at, and what are the enablers and disablers of what they’re trying to achieve.
Lam: Is that stress part of what you call emotional labor?
David: Stress is a particular kind of emotional labor. Generally, emotional labor is an idea that every single person, when they go to work, does the physical or intellectual part of their work, and they also do emotional labor. For example, going to a meeting and being polite or trying to stay focused while a lot of change is going on.