This year’s financial reporting season has been a particularly fraught one. Not just for the obvious reasons you’d expect in these times – last-minute disruptions to schedules, the challenges of remote working, unavailability of data from operations hit by the pandemic – but also because of the burden that increased stress and anxiety place on our working relationships.
Under stress, the limbic system (the body’s complex system of nerves and networks concerned with instinct and mood) tends to override the executive functions of the brain, which can cause people to have trouble in focusing or in controlling their impulses. I have certainly suffered from ‘brain fog’ many times in recent months – and I have made some very odd purchases (did you know you can get any text you like translated into Old Persian and transcribed into cuneiform on a clay tablet? Well, you can!).
Anecdotal evidence suggests that everyone is experiencing the same thing, and these impacts are not confined to leisure time. In the workplace they are causing workplace relationships to shift, as previously negotiated (if often unspoken) ways of interacting.
One might find formerly laissez-faire leaders engage in sudden bouts of micromanagement or previously reliable self-starters become scatter-brained and needy. The situation is made worse because we are unable to meet face to face and re-establish the personal connections that underpin so many of our interactions.
To deal with this, leaders need to draw on their full capacity for ‘emotional labour’. The concept describes the work of managing your emotions and expression to achieve a desired impact on those you are dealing with. It was first developed by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe how employees in service roles have to actively regulate their emotions in order to please customers.
Something like emotional labour is increasingly recognised as a critical skill for leaders. For example, Harvard Business School recently surveyed 600 CEOs and found that the need for empathy and to maintain self-control and focus during the pandemic were ‘dramatically heightened’. As one leader said: ‘Keeping in mind that the person on the other end of a call may be having a dramatic experience during this crisis is an important subtext for how they are navigating the conversation with me.’
Putting your own emotional needs and responses aside so you can consider and allow for those of others takes energy and discipline
Emotional labour is not a zero-cost activity, but it very often goes unnoticed in a world that has historically undervalued soft skills. Putting your own emotional needs and responses aside so you can consider and allow for those of others takes energy and discipline. Empathising with and supporting the emotional needs of your colleagues can be just as draining.
You need to notice when the work of emotional labour is being performed, to recognise its value and to support it – whether it is being done by you or by members of your team. It may be the most important thing you do as a leader.