I Just Work Here
January 14, 2013
If everyone was just like me, the entire office would be made of Belgian chocolate and we'd watch movies all day, stopping only occasionally to nibble on the walls.
Unfortunately, my workplace is like everyone else's: made of bland, inedible materials and filled with people who have different tastes, personalities and emotions.
Yes, I said "emotions." Turns out those are allowed in the workplace these days. There's even a buzzword, "emotional intelligence," that's all the rage in workplace guru circles. (All workplace gurus sit in circles because it's very Zen and besides, what other shape would they sit in, an octagon?)
In brief, the growing interest in emotional intelligence stems from a slow-but-steady recognition that the people who inhabit office spaces are, in fact, human beings.
A person who is emotionally intelligent can recognize and understand his or her own reactions to workplace events, while also recognizing, understanding and appreciating the responses of others.
For too long, emotions have been unwelcome at work. We had a job to do, darn it, and we weren't going to let silly things like feelings get in the way. So we stifled tears, anger (sometimes) and even passion, lest we risk seeming unhinged.
"The truth is you can't even decide what you want for lunch without involving your emotions," said Anne Kreamer, author of "It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace" (www.annekreamer.com). "We've all been acculturated to believe that the only appropriate behavior in the workplace is one that does not acknowledge that we're all human beings. And that's just not true."
Enhancing emotional intelligence in the workplace has two pragmatic benefits.
The individual who can understand what sets him off or charges her up or what drives him nuts can harness those emotions, control them when need be and use them to better ends. And being able to read and react appropriately to the emotions of others makes a manager more effective and builds camaraderie among workers and stronger client connections.
It sounds strategic, but being emotionally smart will get you places.
For a company, fostering emotional intelligence leads to better collaboration and creates a happier, more productive operation.
In her book, Kreamer writes:
"The goal of any person or organization should be to allow emotion at work, in all of its gendered nuances, its due — but not to excess. Again, as with most of life, it's a 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' calibration question — you want not too soft or too hard, not too cold or too hot, but the elusive 'just right.' ... (My) strong sense is that very few workplaces have their emotional temperatures set anything close to just right."
That might be why emotional intelligence remains a concept that has yet to catch on.
Louise Altman, co-founder of Intentional Communication Consultants, said: "I think it's still viewed as slightly suspect in the average workplace. I'm kind of astonished on a regular basis at how little people really understand about human dynamics in the workplace."
Altman's husband, George, also co-founder of the company, added: "Sometimes when you talk about emotional intelligence, people want to start hanging garlic around their necks because they think it has to do with psychology or therapy. But it's really just about greater self-awareness."
The Altmans said a good way to start building your emotional intelligence is to slow down and think about how you're feeling during different parts of the workday. Try to observe the emotions of those around you as well.
"When you're in a meeting and you're presenting your case, how aware are you of how you're feeling, why you're doing what you're doing and the impact what you're saying is having on others," Louise Altman said. "Non-verbal cues are coming all the time. Are you taking those cues in? Are you modifying your behavior? Perhaps you can gauge whether you've reached a good time to stop talking and ask a question or two."
"If you see someone crying in the workplace," Kreamer said, "go up and have a conversation about it in a way that doesn't make them feel ashamed. Find out what's wrong. If you see some abusive behavior going on at your office, go up to the person who did it and say, 'What was going on there?' We need to not be afraid to acknowledge that these emotions are there and to try to discuss them."
Somewhere along the line we decided the way we interact in a work environment should be quite different than the way we interact with friends and family. That's as it should be, up to a point. But it overlooks the fact that we don't become robots when we walk through the office door.
We remain human beings throughout the day. Fleshy, warm-blooded, emotional.
Appreciate that. And hope that someday we can all work in office buildings made of rich Belgian chocolate — which would help smooth out everyone's emotions.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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