As the last few weeks of our new shared reality have unfolded, anxiety, fear, uncertainty —emotions that have always been under the surface at an individual level—have entered the collective narrative. Organizations are now grappling with the gravitational pull of shared anxiety; most employers see managing staff unease as their biggest challenge during the coronavirus crisis.
We should allow ourselves a modicum of grace here, if only because managing the human experience in the workplace is still just a nascent concept.
Until recently, the predominant advice to managing your emotions at work was: Don’t have them. We accepted the term “professionalism” as useful shorthand for positive traits like accountability, integrity, and reliability, and then we weaponized it, whether as a tool of conformity (dress appropriately, women) or as a filtering mechanism for social status (he wasn’t a “culture fit;” don’t hire him). Ultimately, we allowed the guise of professionalism to eclipse the emotional experience of being human at work.
Turns out, pretending we aren’t human simply doesn’t work in times when we are faced to confront our very human fragility. We must, as Brene Brown has insisted, “either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”
“Don’t mind my son!” a co-worker laughed as his toddler climbed across his lap on our video call. I didn’t mind. My colleague was wearing sweatpants and so was I. Any illusion we used to propagate about “balance,” telling both our work and our families that they are the top priority and acting like the two are entirely separate forces in our lives, has ended abruptly. The affair we were having from our life with our work and vice versa has just been exposed.
The glimmer of hope I am clinging to in trying times is that the pretending ends for good, that this global crisis liberates us from our post-industrial hangover of humans as resources, as pieces of the organizational machine, without families or feelings.