A thing apart
Tears need gravity.
Did you even know that? I didn’t.
I read it in “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. And, of course, it makes sense. Your tear ducts will still produce tears in a vacuum, but the tears won’t fall. You will not get the single, dramatic, rolling tear in a vacuum. You won’t get the snotty, weepy mess. Tears need gravity.
Emotions will be there, in a vacuum. Of course. Whether you see them or not. But their expression is not an act of will. It is a function of context. And as @CurtQu will tell you: context is everything.
And that is what I want to talk about today.
The office as context. Because even when we are working remotely, in our pyjamas and sock feet, the office is still there. Framing and underpinning what conversations are meant to happen and how. And no, I am not suggesting for a moment that I want to see people cry in the office. I don’t. But if they feel like crying, I don’t want them to feel they can’t because they are in the office. If the tears are linked to a break-up. A loss. Fear. We can be there as humans who spend more time with each other than with our own families.
But what about tears that are not about life outside our four walls, but life inside them? Tears linked to work. I have heard sobs when going into the ladies’ loo in many a bank. I have had male colleagues, eyes brimming with unshed tears come into my office and shut the door just for a place to hide away from the accusatory openness of the open plan floor. It’s not called the bull pen for nothing.
Tears of hurt. Rage. Impotence. Tears linked to work. But crying at work is what teenage waitresses do, right? We don’t cry in the office, when we work in a big bank. Even when it’s the big bank’s fault. Or the fault of the people the big bank has long tolerated.
What am I saying?
I am saying I have worked in big banks for 17 years and I have seen a lot of unshed tears. Linked to work. And I say it’s time we face them.
Because the person crying is often the last person responsible for fixing whatever the issue is.
We have long built work environments that are based on logic, fact and process. Transactional relationships, unemotional metrics, measurable commitments. Yet we also, and despite it all, encourage imagination and creativity, urge innovation and cooperation beyond structured incentives. Expect conversations around risk, projections, aspirations, corporate ambition to coexist with leaps into the art of the possible. We expect people to bring all of their best traits to work in a context of grudging tolerance. We expect people to work it out. We ask for their best days. And give no space for the average days or the bad days. All emotional, non-factual, non-concrete vectors dressed up in desperate KPIs and sober bar-charts disguising the need to nod at hope and fear, instinct and giddiness.
Try as we might to package emotion as logic, business relies heavily on a whole gamut of non-rational positions. Not irrational. Just not deriving solely from fact and logic.
Only we don’t call them that.
And, to add insult to injury, we seek to harness the upside only. As if emotions can ride the crest of a joyful wave forevermore, never falling, never dipping, never getting wet.
Real life is a bit more complex than that.
Creativity comes with frustration and confusion.
Collaboration comes with vulnerability which may invite hurt, misunderstanding, tension. Anger.
Innovation comes with risk, a bit of craziness, mistakes and false starts which, in turn, come with insecurity, doubt, conviction, hope, despair.
And that’s before we have allowed for anyone to be a real human outside the office. With parents. Children. Partners. A terrible commute. A sick dog. A hangover. A cancer scare. Or a diagnosis.
Humans whose lives outside of work is how they get to be the colleagues we rely on, the professionals we admire, the ideas-generators and work-horses we count on. Humans whose personal journeys outside the office make them who we hire and choose to work with and have lunch with and go down the pub with (you know, when it was a thing that happened). And yet whose lives outside the office and feelings (in and out of the office) become a thing apart.
And we have become so accustomed to carrying the burden of that separation, so proud of our unemotional industry of rational, measurable outcomes, that we have stopped acknowledging how crazy this is.
Far from being rational and unemotive, our industry actively demands the positive impact of emotional presence (call it loyalty or commitment) and emotional investment (passion, creativity, ideation) and non-rational aspiration (strategy, innovation, expansion) but giving space to our teams to be complete humans seems to be thought of as a personal managerial style choice.
When it should be corporate 101. Up there with giving your teams hardware, notebooks, tools. Respect.
If I want the upside of your emotional investment in the work, I should invite your full emotional presence into the workplace. And that means I will respect your silence when you don’t want to talk about what is going on at home, and will learn that we all express and experience things differently and develop the language of bridging the gaps between each of our emotional realities because, you know what, not only is there no universally recognisable semiology, there is also no moment-in-time snapshot that captures where we all are.
So developing the language to navigate this unspoken world is not a wishy-washy bit of kumbaya. It is good management. It is good business.
Yes because happy people work harder. But more importantly because the best work, all invention, all creativity, comes from a place fraught with emotion.
And teamwork, trust, and support come from a place of pure emotion.
Measure till the cows come home. You can’t change the basic fact that humans feel their way around the world and the office is no exception so, as a leader, your choice is not whether to be empathetic and present.
That is not a choice. There is no choice, in that. If you are not empathetic and present you have failed right out of the gate.
Your choice is how you enable (without forcing) and invite (without mandating) your team’s presence in all its emotional and rational glory to take “getting the job done” to the next level of deriving a shared purpose.
A sense of direction.
A bridge from me (the private individual) to us (not just my family and friends but the team of complete humans I spend my days with at work) to the big world out there that seems much more accessible and much more our responsibility if we come at it from a place of presence, purpose and awareness that the way life feels is very real and the only thing we achieve by not acknowledging it is missing potential synergies, bright synapses over our shared ground, the comfort of our shared humanity and the sense of being in this (whatever it is) together.
Try that with your team.
Offer that to your colleagues.
Demand that from your boss.
Create the context.
And then – only then – let’s talk about your retention numbers, productivity and utilisation scores and return on equity.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!