Monday, April 16, 2012

Emotions at Work

In my profession, emotion can carry a bad reputation and strong emotion can be seen as downright sinister. Tales are told in college engineering books and classes of once-prominent stars who later in their career either became emotionally attached to their own creations or who tried to manipulate the emotions of others to affect an outcome, invariably with disastrous effect. Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Panama Canal comes to mind. A critical set of requirements is overlooked, or consequences are not thoroughly worked out, or a design is not tested well enough. Damage is done, property is ruined, havoc is wreaked, lives are lost. If those responsible for such projects had managed to keep their emotions at bay and dispassionately applied their skills, so the stories go, the losses would have been avoided.

At least, that is the message that was given 20 years ago. Nowadays younger engineers don't appear to have heard those stories. Nevertheless, enginering culture changes slowly and much of what brings engineers recognition is their analytic and organizational abilities. Outward emotionalism (except for laughter) tends to brew distrust or even disdain. Permitting emotion into the design room is still seen as a significant risk.

I am a creature of that culture, first taught by my engineering father and reinforced by my formal education. My reflex is to see emotions as distractions at best, and deceptions at worst, to be avoided when working out problems. There is some allowance for levity as a team builder, but not when pursuing technical quarry. Cynicism, chiefly directed at management, has become more acceptable lately, especially since the introduction of Dilbert. The effervescent cheerleading at all-employee meetings, attended by lots of highly emotional types, also finds more sympathy these days among the technocracy.

Yet the Vulcan way is not without its hazards. Just as I wouldn't run outside in March without first checking the weather to see if I'm appropriately dressed, I shouldn't careen nonchalantly through my relationships without concern for the emotional "weather" (mine and theirs). Just as dressing appropriately will help me to stay outside longer, and even enjoy everything from snowfall to hot sun, learning to hike in the emotional climate will help me "play" in the broader world beyond the technical design room.

Emotional intelligence? Perhaps it is not the oxymoron some of us take it to be.

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