Bullish: How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings

It’s possible to turn off these emotions, in part by excusing yourself from an office environment, or at least a lot of the play-acting that goes along with office social life (last week: How to Get Out of Meetings, Permanently). Not all emotions are bad, of course. Certainly you want to be thought a genial coworker with good interpersonal skills; you do not, however, want to be part of something that feels like high school, or a cult.

Years ago, I worked for a large test prep company that is now not doing so well. This company would regularly charge parents upwards of $150 an hour for tutoring, and pay the tutor $25 an hour. (Also, for the record, I think that any company that requires noncompetes of employees it pays less than $15,000 a year deserves damnation, utter damnation.) And then — and this is endemic in any industry that works with children, animals, sick people, etc. — it would attempt to exploit its employees by compensating them in feelings rather than money.

In these situations, I have always been known as “the one who’s willing to say something.” (Similarly, in college, I lived in a co-ed fraternity house, and I was known as “the one who’s willing to confront that guy who isn’t showering.”) Many people fear speaking up about exploitation because they think there will be repercussions — well, to my knowledge, I’ve never suffered from such repercussions. In fact, as I wrote in Is It Better to Rule Through Love or Fear?, I have, over the years, inspired mild trepidation among some people I’ve worked with, and this has worked just fine. I think mild fear is an excellent compensatory strategy for small people.

In any case, this company would say “We need everyone to do this two-hour, unpaid errand/training in order to be staffed for this upcoming gig.”

And I would say, on behalf of everyone, in my best direct-but-diplomatic wording: “I don’t think it’s financially feasible for most of us to do two hours of unpaid work in order to do a three-hour job later, especially adding in commuting time for both activities.”

And the response would be something like, “But think of THE CHILDREN!”

This is infinitely worse than “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!”, at least when it’s coming from a for-profit company and all the children involved live in a neighborhood that begins with “Upper” and ends with “Side” and are not deprived in any way, except inasmuch as having too much Fendi as a child can really distract from divining the theme of My Antonia.

How about I start a catsitting service where I charge rich people $100 a day to have their cats fed a macrobiotic diet, taught Jivamukti yoga, and lovingly brushed with brushes made of the hollowed-out skeletons of middle-class cats, and then I hire cat sitters for $11 an hour and suggest that the cat-sitters need to obtain their own Jivamukti yoga certifications as well as tiny cat yoga mats infused with organic catnip, and then when the catsitters complain that they can’t pay their rent, I send them emails with JPGS of adorable kittens looking forlorn, with the caption “WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?”

It’s very helpful to be able to turn off your feelings here. If it’s the case that someone “really needs you!” and that person is a paying client (or the child/cat of one), that’s an excellent reason for you to get paid more money, not less.

So, here are a few action points for winning at Emotional Currency Arbitrage.

  • If people want emotional “payment” for their labor, give it to them. Expand your own capacity to give it to them. Make a point of sending one totally unsolicited thank-you email (not a thank-you in an existing email chain — a totally fresh email that says “thank you” in the subject line, with an explanation of the thank you in the email itself), or a “Wow, great job!” email with other people cc’d on it, every day after lunch. Even people who do not have an unhealthy dependency on praise still like compliments and gratitude, of course.
  • If you are unemployed, underemployed, have no apparent marketable skills, etc., you actually still have an unlimited resource: the ability to make people feel good about themselves. Just as blind people are able to hear better (for years this was thought to be a myth, but research shows that it’s true — blind people can take over parts of the brain typically used for processing visual information and repurpose this brain space for auditory processing), people who have a little dead space in their careers have the time and motivation to work on becoming the sort of person that other people like to work around and are, in some cases, actually addicted to working around. Even if you are a recent college graduate who has never had a job, it’s pretty easy to find some important people in your chosen field (most authors are very easy to contact online), send them intelligent compliments, and figure out a way to offer to get involved in something. Young people often vastly underestimate how much successful older people get out of being looked up to.
  • On the other hand, if you find that you are being emotionally manipulated by your superiors, or that you are pursuing self-esteem boosts more than you are pursuing money, advancement, or real goals, one good antidote is to keep a current resume at all times, and tweak it about every two weeks. Then, whenever you prioritize your work activities, you’ll be able to think: am I doing this to achieve something real, or because of some crappy office social club? Always remember that there is a Platonic form that is “your career” that exists separately from “your job” or your current slate of clients. Do not get caught in Plato’s Cave; your real career is outside the cave, and the emotional manipulation and stroking that come your way are mere shadows flickering on the wall of that cave.
  • Even better than a resume, create a work “portfolio,” especially if you are young and have only one real job on your resume. Give every project, initiative, marketing campaign, etc., that you work on its own page or Powerpoint slide in this portfolio. A resume with one job on it makes you look like someone a new employer doesn’t have to pay that much. A woman with twenty pages of easy-to-browse documentation of twenty projects she worked on in that job is a force to be reckoned with. Quantify everything. I once worked in a marketing job that was depressing in that it was very difficult to ever see whether anything had any effect. If I had to do it again, I’d have been much more involved in metrics — I’d have made sure I was able to show that the e-mail newsletters under my watch had an x% higher open rate than before I came on board, for instance. (I wrote in Five Ways to Improve Your Life With Math about calculating your monetary value to your company).

If you quantify your successes, a boss’s “ungrateful” attitude really stops mattering. Some bosses are perfectly happy with you, never say a word about it, and just give you money. Sometimes, it is the fairly unemotional attitude of these people that has allowed them to become bosses in the first place. You can trade money for a lot more different kinds of things than you can feelings. You get to choose your preferred currency.

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    • Eve

      Great advice! Thank you, Jen.

    • Eve

      I realized that may have sounded like I was being a smartass, given the topic, but I meant it sincerely.

      • Jen Dziura

        Ha! Meta-comment.

      • porkchop

        :D I know! Having been taught to use politeness as a tool, I’m plagued with doubt when others appeal to my feelings–do they think they’re successfully manipulating me? Did they too learn manners by rote and are now using them on me because they think I care–and if so, can we give each other permission to stop? Or are they just sweet and gentle people following their natural impulse to be kind?

    • http://twitter.com/Eva_fate Eva Rinaldi

      I love this post, but what about those of us who are making very little money, and have to deal with a workplace environment where people often ARE paid in feelings? I’m the only person at my office who does not give a crap about being thanked or appreciated, I would really rather be scheduled for more hours. I wish I could say to my employer “Don’t say thank you, schedule me to work this weekend instead of the person I filled in for at the last minute because she had a headache.”