Understanding Emotional Energy Expenditure in Business

Ever since mankind discovered how to make tools technology has been an inseparable part of our lives. What has changed so greatly in the last 100 years or so is the speed at which discoveries are happening and how quickly they can become part of our business and personal lives. What has not really changed is how humans operate. All the pitfalls and potential of how humans interact with each other in groups is the same as it ever was. This idea that technology can solve all our problems is not new. We have always wanted a quick, clean solution to the messy problem of how to get humans to work together effectively. From the Pyramids to the Great Wall of China and the WWII holocaust, history shows us very clearly is we can achieve far more together for better or worse. As are now firmly into the 21st century the time has come to take stock of what we have learned from our past and accept that we cannot change our underlying illogical tendencies but we can learn better ways to accept and manage them. In doing that we will also gain more from technology as the barriers to utilizing it in the most effect ways will reduce. The primary barrier to effective use of technology in organizations is a human interaction problem.

Human beings are emotional creatures who require social interaction to survive. Our western society mental picture of emotional frailty is a person, usually a women, crying in a result to some situation. Less often do we envision an angry male boss berating his employees as emotional frailty. Not being able to manage anger, frustration or contempt is also emotional frailty. Being an emotionless automaton is also a symptom of emotional frailty because unless one has a true mental illness that kind of emotional distance is not sustainable and will cause damage somewhere in their life. It is not possible to remove emotions from the equation. Pushing them down is a recipe for disaster. Being a walking talking raw nerve is also not the right solution. We have to use our combined emotional intelligence to find a better way for how we interact with each other and utilize tools in that process. The one place we cannot avoid interaction or using new tools is in our work. I believe the tenants of this better way already exist and the best place to first incorporate them into society is in the workplace. All that is needed is that we become and encourage leaders that are willing to take the risk on to change.

Does work have to be painful and emotionally draining? I believe that the majority of people want to do a good work. To most people doing a good job is measured by achieving a goal in a reasonable amount of time. Everyone's primary motivation for work is to earn money to survive no matter how much you love your job. Job satisfaction and social status are secondary motivations for work. Your basic survival needs have to be meet before any of the more lofty ambitions become important. In the modern business world often accomplishing a goal requires a lot of emotional energy.

For example if your job is to move boxes off a truck into a warehouse there is very clearly defined goal and thus when the job is completed there is a sense of accomplishment. The warehouse is empty and you are unloading the truck by yourself. There are no rules or procedures that you have to follow other than:
• don't damage the goods
• stack the boxes so they don't fall over
The rest is up to you. After you are done the sore muscles are a clear indicator of your expended energy to accomplish this task. The boxes being moved for all to see is an clear indicator to the rest of the world of our achievement.

Now picture that every 20 feet for the 100 feet of the warehouse there is fence with gate. At each gate is a person who must confirm who you are and that you are carrying the correct box before you can pass. Each person has a slightly different way of doing their job. There are no prescribed rules that will help you know how to navigate each checkpoint. Some of the checkpoint minders want you to snap to attention and placate their egos before they will let you pass. Others want to have small talk for 30 minutes before letting you pass. Another wants you to carry the box on your head while another wants you carry the box on your back. Eventually you will complete the task. The amount of physical energy needed to move the boxes isn't that much different than the original scenario. What is vastly different is the amount of emotional energy required to complete the task. This greatly reduces your feeling of accomplishment and reduces your eagerness to tackle the next task. Sore muscles recover faster then depleted emotional energy. Year after year of these kinds of environments take a large physical and mental toll on all the people in them management included.

Managers are humans also. They have to complete their job to get that paycheck to keep the lights on like everyone else. Characterizing problems with organizational health as only a "management issue" or falling into the trap of the workers vs management battle are just smoke hiding the real problems and deflecting blame. We all contribute in some way to continuation of these toxic environments. In the warehouse example there may be valid reasons why those checkpoints have been created and just removing all them is probably not the answer.

Back the warehouse all your co-workers have the same results and you commiserate over lunch on how hard the work is but all agree "that's just the way it is". We are all just "working for the weekend" or trying to survive the rat race until retirement. Some of the co-workers can just shut out the emotional impact and don't let it bother them as much as others or at least they don't show it at work. Often someone's personal life is where they deal with the emotional strains of the workplace. We keep on the mask of a obedient employee at work but often at home the mask starts to fall.

Eventually you ask your boss to get a forklift to help reduce the physical effort required. This happens but a reduction in sore muscles does not take away the emotional drain of navigating the gauntlet of checkpoints. More often than not modern organizations operate in this way. The checkpoints represent how emotionally draining the process for achieving work can become. The fork lift is technology which can often reduce the time it takes to do the "actual" work but does not address the emotional impacts.

I believe the future of business is to incorporate the expenditure of emotional capital when designing or changing any organization process. The amount of emotional energy one person has is finite. The dangers of over spending emotional energy are:

  • Disconnected employees who are just watching the clock and are not invested in the success of the organization
  • Projects take longer to complete and disconnected employees are not eager to start a new task
    higher employee turnover

    • A lot of profitable high tech firms just throw a lot of money at their employees to prevent this. Eventually however the emotional pressure cooker will win and burnout happens. Its like Vegas the house always wins eventually
  • Negative health impacts of continued stress on workers and managers which results in higher healthcare costs and often risky social behavior which society often calls (blowing off steam)
  • Managers feel like they have to constantly keep a eye on their employees to ensure they are working

How do we learn how to better manage emotional energy?

  • Realize this not just a topic for the touchy-feely HR set. Emotional energy has and will impact tangible business outcomes. Ignore it at your own peril.
  • Create an organizational worker where honest, non-defensive, constructive communication can occur between workers and management. This creates a way to be heard. Management should be clear on the reasons why a certain process is in place and allow the workers to be part looking for ideas to better solve the problem.  Most often no one is better suited to find a solution to a problem then the person doing the work.
  • Have the most emphatic members of your management team review any new or existing process in terms of emotional energy. These emphatic team members are better suited to see the process from the perspective of the worker.

These a just a small subset of all the possible way to better manage emotional energy in the workplace.