Part 1 of this article ‘The taming of emotions‘ described how in the West during the middle ages, the first guild associations struggled to discipline our more spontaneous and fierce impulses. In later centuries our early industrialists experienced great difficulty to control violence, abuse of alcohol, raving, obscene language and sexual intercourse in their factories. In our days these impulses, or rather their more offensive and outrageous manifestations, may have been tamed but what happened with the underlying drives and emotions. What happened with jealousy, disappointment, triumph, anger, sexual attraction, resentful gossip and power games? Have modern offices and factories now become graveyards of emotional tranquility and neutrality?
Forms of communication between people are related to changing relations of power and dependency. The interdependency networks existing today force us to develop more informal manners (Elias, 1994; Wouters, 1986). One might speak of being forced into the informal. Paradoxically this more informal behavior makes higher demands on our control than the more standardized behaviors which were once linked with the hierarchy. It presupposes such a degree of natural self-control, that more spontaneous and direct behavior becomes possible without the risk of losing all restraints or clamming up. This applies to many areas of social interaction. Elias describes the very conventional ritual which regulated relationships between men and women in the early twentieth century. This ceremonial has lost its function of guidance and external constraint. So, no fixed ritual to provide security; the burden of shaping life together lies on the shoulders of the individuals concerned. This demands a more complicated management of affect and behavior. Elias quotes Time Magazine when describing the resulting insecurity.
“A man seated on the downtown bus might endure agonies of self-examination before offering his seat to a woman. The male has to learn to size up the female by age, education and possibly ferocity of feminism before opening a door for her: would the courtesy offend her? It makes for ambiguity: if a man studiously refuses to open a door for a women, is he sexually liberated? Or just an ill-bred slob?” (Elias, 1996, p. 37)
This informalization brings with it stronger demands on one’s own judgment and responsibility. Will this informalization lead an undisciplined mess? In some parts of our society this will be the case but in situations where people are compelled to sustain regular working relationships the development towards stronger discipline and stricter standards goes on. A few examples of behavioral standards in the office:
‘Never, ever come into a place in a hurry. Better to walk in cool and collected and be ten minutes late, than being on time and out of breath. Panting indicates: this person does not have his affairs under control’.
‘Whatever you do, don’t take too many notes. Writing a lot indicates: this person is afraid to forget things. Or: this person has no authority, he/she has to report back in detail’.
‘Watch for the man whose eyes wander to an attractive secretary during important meetings, he’s vulnerable’.
This is according to a column on the do’s and don’ts of organizational behavior in a business magazine. Detailed, and actually quite sharp rules of conduct and at the same time relaxed and informal behavior, is that combination possible? Apparently it is! We see here a being forced into the informal, including (albeit in a different way than in the past) various ‘small’ showdowns between people to demonstrate that they understand, that they belong. Status competition is often the driving force behind changes in organizational behavior.
The curbing and control of emotions solved many problems with regard to interaction. Sure, but these problems have been replaced by new problems. I will let J. Heller (1975) speak about company-life in his famous novel ‘Something happened’, the chapter entitled: ‘The office in which I work’.
“People in the company, for example, do their best to minimize friction (we are encouraged to revolve around each other eight hours a day like self-lubricating ball bearings, careful not to jar or scrape) and to avoid quarrelling with each other openly. It is considered a much better form to wage our battles sneakily behind each other’s back than to confront each other directly with any semblance of complaint. (The secret attack can be denied, lied about, or reduced in significance, but the open dispute is witnessed and has to be dealt with by somebody who finds the whole situation deplorable.) We are all on a congenial, first name basis, especially with people we loathe (the more we loathe them, the more congenial we try to be), and our wives and children are always inquired about familiarly by their first names, even by people who have never met them or met them only once” (Heller, 1975, p. 47).
“Andy Kagle, as head of our Sales Department, has a very powerful position with the company and is now afraid of losing it. He may be right. His name is all wrong. (Half wrong. Andrew is right, but Kagle?) So are his clothes. He shows poor judgment in colors and styles, as well as in fabrics, and his suits and coats and shirts do not fit him well enough…..
Kagle has ability and experience, but they don’t count anymore. What does count is that he has no tone. His manners are no good…..
He knows he is awkward. He is not a hearty extrovert; he is a nervous extrovert, the worst kind (especially to other nervous extroverts), and so he may be doomed” (Ibid., p. 52).
In these two quotations we see how ways of emotion management play a role in the mutual power game, as demonstrated in references like “we are all on a congenial first name basis”, “wrong judgment in colours en styles”, “his manners are no good”, “he is a nervous extrovert, so he may be doomed”. This latter observation is especially interesting because it refers directly to ‘wrong’ emotion management. If you can’t manage the right manners and right tone, you are ‘doomed’.
Jealousy, even hatred, disappointment, triumph, anger, dejection, gossip and frustration preoccupy many people in organizations.
Why in management literature, must we do with bloodless constructions like the informal organization, the unwritten rules of the game, dissatisfiers, role-conflict and cultural analysis? What kind of covering up is this?
Our first industrialists such as Wedgwood and Regout still testify to the need to control violence and other wild and untamed behavior in their factories. Have our offices and factories now become graveyards of emotional tranquility and neutrality? The explanation for this disregarding of emotions lies perhaps in the risk we feel when we let go even a little. It has taken us centuries to reach the current level of trust in ourselves and others. The rationalization of interaction in our modern organizations makes us handle emotions irrationally. They are gone, disappeared into the periphery of eccentrics, the helpless, cultural minorities and the maladjusted. Whom we sometimes treat heartlessly because they express what we are trying to keep down in ourselves.
The emotional aspect of organizations requires much more attention. Otherwise important issues remain unaddressed. A few implications will be briefly elaborated here:
- Much literature and much training on enhancing skills like problem-solving, negotiating, meeting-skills, empathy and feedback provide us with all kinds of sensible do’s and don’ts. These do’s and don’ts give us something to go on, but they can only be effective if they are internalised, integrated in the psychology of the person, and become ‘second nature’. This is a much neglected aspect in current training and literature. The do’s and don’ts are fairly simple to understand and to practise by means of specially designed exercises in a learning group. It is my observation that these lessons fade away very quickly under the strife and tensions of real life. Then ‘fiery’ emotions move in. So, the learning of skills cannot be separated from one’s style of emotion management. Do’s and don’ts are all right but they have to be combined with an awareness of emotional styles and agility in dealing with emotions.
- What about jealousy, aggression and nasty status competition as described for instance by Heller? It is highly improbable that emotions connected to pride, anger, inferiority, disorientation, envy, triumph, superiority, sexual attractiveness and racial origin will ever disappear from work relations. We have learned over the ages, to control related impulses like direct aggression, outbursts of physical and sexual violence, open humiliation and flight. This control also implied endless gossiping, vicious buried frictions, ghastly manipulations, cynicism, stereotyping, distrust and fear. Increasing interdependencies no longer go with these kinds of emotion management. On the contrary, a high level of flexibility and open communication are becoming important success factors. “Revolving around each other on a congenial, first name basis, especially with people we loathe” saps these abilities. Feedback on bothersome behaviors, openness about one’s own moods but also more awareness of ‘hidden’ aggressive impulses, are helpful. Therefore it makes sense to become more conscious of the emotional games we play. This implies that emotions are much more admitted into our consciousness and can be discussed in a constructive, even playful way among the people involved. Emotions gain acceptance as important guides for behavior. We have to increase our ability to differentiate among them and to tolerate these impulses in our awareness. This means that emotions come under a more conscious but less rigid control.
- In organizations of high interdependencies between units, people are forced to become more adaptable, manoeuverable and flexible. This implies also changing ways of emotion management. Playful teasing, controlled feed-back on behavior, smooth but direct reactions on the impact of posture and non-verbal signs, light-hearted exaggeration of destructive behavior: all these are examples of ways to raise our emotional agility. To cope with the demands of closer interdependence we have to stretch our abilities in emotion management.
This will not only be a matter of informalization (more agile, playful and relaxed, higher tolerance for all kinds of impulses), but also a matter of more discipline. Rules of emotion management will be introduced. The rules of constructive feedback as described in many textbooks on communication (talk about the effects of behavior in terms of your own feelings, do not become defensive, do not justify or judge attitudes or personalities, focus on concrete behavioral incidents) are good examples. The importance of empathy as the ability to sustain good working relationships with people because one has a better understanding of the other person is another example. Also the spirals of ‘harmful’ emotion management will be more easily recognized and discussed; for instance: blaming other people for one’s own actions.
- We are compelled into a process of trial and error to develop abilities of emotion management. Closer interdependencies ask for easy communication along the chains of personal relations. Higher demands of team effectiveness force its members towards more intense and direct interaction. In many organizations in the West this is needed to improve results and to gain a competitive edge. This forces us to develop competencies to keep relations and communication open and to prevent a gradual bottling-up of negative feelings that hamper easy interaction. In these networks we cannot afford to waste our energies in stressful games of emotional cover-up and vicious frictions.
In these relations emotional openness is no longer the same as taking up a vulnerable position. On the contrary, a more formal attitude and the covering up of emotions with nice manners are the behaviors which make people vulnerable. (Mastenbroek, 2000)
- Let us not forget that changes in emotion management presuppose changes in the power balances between people. It concerns a precarious development. Stronger interdependencies and changing balances of power often coincide with loss of privileges and an intensification of social competition, individual stress and insecurity. The accompanying fears and conflicts provoke a hardening of feelings of aggression and escapism. If these tensions rise to high levels they feed themselves into vicious circles and changes will be blocked. History shows that changes in established patterns of emotion management are accompanied by frustration and conflict (Wouters, 1990).
Stagnation and regression are as normal as evolution.
Wedgwood wrote “the resulting informality lapsed too easily into irregularity”. That is something we don’t have to be so anxious about anymore. It has become a kind of second nature to draw boundaries. The risk of ‘losing all restraints’ is currently less in some parts of our world. The pace at which this development will spread is unsure. It is even unsure this trend will hold. As history shows there always has been ample opportunity for a dynamic of increasing frictions. Stagnation and regression are as normal as evolution.
Elias, N. 1996. The Germans: Power struggles and the development of Habitus in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heller, J. 1975. Something Happened. Corgi edition, London: Transworld Publishers.
Huizinga, J. 1924. The waning of the middle ages. London: Edward Arnold & Co.
Iterson, A. van 1992. Vader, raadgever en beschermer: Petrus Regout en zijn arbeiders 1834-1870. Maastricht: Universitaire Pers.
Mastenbroek, W.F.G. 2000. Organizational Behavior as Emotion Management. In: Ashkanazy, N.M., Härtel, Ch.E.J., Zerbe, W.J. (eds) Emotions in the Workplace: Research, Theory and Practice. Quorum Books, Westport. Also available on ManagementSite: part 1 and part 2.
McKendrick, N. 1961. Josiah Wedgwood and Factory Discipline. The Historical Journal, 4, 1, p. 30-55.
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Wouters, C. 1990. Social stratification and informalization in global perspective. Theory, Culture & Society. 7, 69-90.