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Feelings at Work (& the Bullshit Industrial Complex)

A weekly post in which I share thoughts provoked by (some of) the great content I came across this week(ish).

This was a week filled with far more rain than reasonable (it finally let up today), and an unusual amount of great things to read and think about (see Bonus Mini Musing below). It was also the last week of the LeadWise Academy Practical Self Management Intensive (PSMI) – a five week course I’ve been sharing bits and pieces of in my last few Weekly Musings. I suspect the themes and concepts we explored in the course will continue to feature in this weekly post, as I still have a lot to process, dig deeper into, and reflect on. The team at LeadWise Academy are currently accepting applicants for their second cohort, running in July and August. If you are intrigued and want to know more, please message me with any questions. It was a unique and incredible experience.
Now on with the Musing!

Happiness at Work

The Fear of Feelings at Work – The Atlantic, Bouree Lam

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the obsession with happiness that has spread to our workplaces doesn’t sit quite right with me. It feels subtly (and perhaps unintentionally) coercive. Like, you don’t have to wear 37 pieces of flair and a terrific smile, as long as you’re happy with doing the bare minimum….
Organizations focusing heavily on employee happiness runs the risk of encouraging the performance of happiness from workers in asymmetrical power relationships to the people (leaders, HR) who articulate employee happiness as their desired outcome.
When we ask for happiness, we might get it, or at least the appearance of it. But at what cost?
It’s clear which emotions are acceptable at work: Happiness and enthusiasm are welcomed, but sadness and fear are usually awkward and taboo. That’s likely why workers tend to cry in the bathroom but smile at their desks.
David argues that the suppression of negative emotions and thoughts at work can lead to harmful results, so much so that some business school professors have taken to recommending that companies perform “pre mortems” before starting big projects to identify reservations that team members are too reluctant to speak up about. Often, a can-do attitude can mask existing problems
I never thought I’d write this paragraph, but here goes: feelings, like pain, are useful signals to us that something is going on that we should pay attention to. That something might be our own insecurities, or it might be a dissonance between what we’re being asked to do at work and our own values. Ideally we’re all at, or working towards, a place in our lives as humans that allows us to decode the meaning in our strong feelings, and determine what, if anything, to do about them. Spending a huge portion of our waking lives in organizations with other humans, trying to do increasingly difficult shit in roles that we often attach our sense of worth and identity to is absolutely guaranteed to make us feel things that are not happiness, regularly and forever.
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.
Ergo, telling people (directly or indirectly) to leave their personal issues at the door and slap on a smiley face is not only a little cruel and unrealistic, it’s also incredibly counter-productive. A lot of mental energy goes into the emotional labour of  suppressing those feelings rather than into work, and valuable information is ignored that could provide us with insight into how we might change ourselves or our environments for the better.
Workplace happiness, while a much friendlier sounding focus than ‘productivity’, still seems to rest on scientific management assumptions about the linear, mechanistic qualities of ‘labour’.
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.
As Susan Basterfield said in a recent post:
“I think that it is certainly within each of us to individually cultivate practices and a mindset which can bring us (and to an extent others) more joy in the workplace, but for me that doesn’t address the underlying issue. Its treating the symptom instead of the cause.”

So, if pursuing employee happiness is not the answer, then what is? Telling people they can spread their bad feelings everywhere, like a virus? Crying in meetings? Having to be inconvenienced by someone else’s bad day? (The horror!)

Probably not. Small steps to make people feel that they can voice dissatisfaction, discontent, anxiety, or general ‘mehness’ might have surprising payoffs.

From Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety, we know that teams that feel safe enough to articulate discontent or talk about frustration are the most high-functioning teams. When we only allow some emotions, we create a huge amount of emotional labor. We also create a situation for individuals that is psychologically unhealthy and undermines the organization’s ability to learn and function more effectively.


The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex – 99u, Sean Blanda

There is no doubt that we live in a time in which high-quality knowledge and wisdom is being shared generously, free of cost, all over the web.
I promise I’m not going to start another rant about those “64 Things Successful People do Before 5:43 a.m.” Medium posts (spoiler: they drink organic emu oil smoothies while being grateful. And meditate, about how grateful they are), but if you get as annoyed by that stuff as I do, then this article might offer another take on the downsides of this genre.
This Bullshit Industrial Complex has always existed. But thanks to the precarious economics and job prospects of the creative person, it is often in a creative’s financial interest to climb the bullshit pyramid. In the short term, it’s creating a class of (often young) creatives deluded into thinking they are doing something meaningful by sharing “advice.”
It’s about creatives, but it could be about any corner of the online world. There is no doubt that we live in a time in which high-quality knowledge and wisdom is being shared generously, free of cost, all over the web. And yet the internet is also saturated with people that want to tell you how to be better, more successful, with tips and hacks and listicles. In many cases their credibility isn’t built on what they’ve achieved, and the hard won lessons from their failures. It’s foundation is how many likes they get, followers they have, or e-mail subscribers on their list.

So what? Blanda points out the insidious echo chamber that can result from chasing likes and clicks. Groupthink, and the reinforcement of the Bullshit Industrial Complex.

The “first principle” of why people willingly join the Complex is a matter of external versus internal motivation. If you’re fueled primarily by external validation, the best way to get it is by surrounding yourself with people like you and writing as an “expert” for that group. Voila, here come a thundering stampede of people ready to tell you to follow your passion. And when you make choices based on what others will think about you, you lose yourself along the way, and the world loses another creative mind that would otherwise share something original. And then, we’re stuck with the same voices at the top of the Complex. We all deserve better.

Future of Work

The Luddites Were Right – Quartz, Michael J. Coren

You may or may not be familiar with the origin and historical significance of the term ‘Luddite”, used today to refer to someone who still has a flip phone or a hotmail e-mail address (no hate mail please, I’ve still got mine too). If it’s a bit hazy for you, then this article is one of the best I’ve seen explaining the back story.
The word Luddite has come to mean someone who doesn’t like technology. Really it was a political fight over who was going to use the spoils of profits from machinery.
To sum up:
Things did not end well for the Luddites. The group of weavers and textile artisans in early 1800s were crushed by the British government after resisting the destruction of their livelihoods by industrialization.
The Luddite Fallacy is a term that describes the belief that new technology does not result in the overall destruction of jobs – rather it destroys some jobs (through automation and disruption), but creates others, resulting in a recomposition of jobs within an economy. Still a terrible outcome for those people whose jobs disappear, but definitely not the same level of upheaval as the jobless, robot-overlord vision of dystopia that some have painted as inevitable.
This is important. Some economist, futurists and thinkers believe that while the Luddite Fallacy generally holds true, the pace of technological advancement, including advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, along with unprecedented disruption, means that the Luddite Fallacy is no longer true, if it ever was. Essentially, all bets are off, and we may soon find ourselves with very little work to go around.
For nations and governments, and others who preoccupy themselves thinking about this stuff, this is a critical piece of the puzzle to understand what the great social and institutional challenges of the next 100 years are going to be.
Coren revisits the Luddites to see if their story has answers for us as we face these complex challenges. What he finds is both interesting and troubling.
The Luddites were not opposed to the idea of using machines to make things more efficiently or be more productive. They just thought if you’re going to make more money because you’re more productive, you need to kick some of that money back down to the workers. The merchants were really not of that opinion….
It’s impossible to think about a future that may have less work overall without thinking about inequality. It seems that this is not that different than the reality that Luddites feared, though perhaps at an altogether different scale today.
How is our current situation different from the Luddites’ struggle?
One big dissimilarity is there really is less collective action and solidarity among workers. During the Luddite period, you had workers who knew each other in tight-knit little towns where it was easier to organize and get frame-breaking to happen. It’s a lot harder with a larger country with disparate people all over the place
Similarly to the gig economy, workers spread out and invisible to one another lack the ability to organize as they might have in the past. And in many cases, the companies making decisions that might eliminate jobs are so entrenched into our digital lives that any kind of collective action might be exceedingly difficult to mobilize.
There are no factories to monkey wrench anymore. What are you going to do: burn down Facebook or Uber? Their products are software.

I won’t open a can of awful, hateful, fake news worms here, but there are many commentators that see a the rising tide of populism as linked to these circumstances. It’s easy to blame others when you can’t see them and witness the impact of your words. And yet, as Coren points out, there may be seeds of hope in that very fact:

On the other hand, you have the Internet, modes of communication for disparate people to talk about and spread their ideas in ways that can be powerful.

Bonus Mini Musing:

The rise of the ‘Dark Knight’ workplace vigilante – The Guardian

Loved this. Yes, you probably know someone like this:
“Self-appointed enforcers, keen to report colleagues for misdemeanours, are a common – and potentially costly – issue for organisations, survey finds”
My favorite part of this article was the author noting how survey respondents referred to these “workplace vigilantes”:  “Derided as members of the “little Justice League” or simply “Batman”.
That’s a wrap. What do you think? Are self-professed “thought leaders” mostly bullshitters? Are the Luddites a cautionary tale for us? Given the choice, would you rather have a workplace filled with “Dark Knights”, or people sharing their feelings? Let me know what you think…
Image credit: Linh Nguyen via
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