Emotional Labor—Now More Than Ever

Emotional labor is the act of connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment.  ~Seth Godin

In his book, Linchpin, Seth Godin states that no one pays you to do physical labor anymore. You are paid for emotional labor. It’s the act of doing work you don’t feel like, the act of having a conversation that might be difficult, etc. It’s the hard work of digging deep inside and producing an idea that scares you. It’s connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy for you to do in that moment.

What is emotional labor?

I grew up on a farm in Kansas. My developmental years were dominated by physical labor. Having three older brothers, my participation in the physical labor of farming was limited. However, as several of my brothers graduated and moved on to other careers, I needed to lend a hand out in the fields. One of my periodic jobs was to drive the tractor and pull a baler while either my brother or father stacked the hay bales on the trailer that was also attached behind the baler. While we had to work in tandem, it was nearly all physical labor, very little emotional labor. Except for the occasion when I would let up on the clutch too quickly which wasn’t good for the baler or the person attempting to stand on the moving trailer. In those moments a little “emotion” was expressed by my brother. My father was more tolerant of my less than perfect clutching abilities.

But we really could get by (for better or worse) without a great deal of communication or emotional labor. Today’s workplace is a dramatic shift from my childhood. And since some of you are thinking it, I’ll go ahead and say it, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Emotional labor takes time and effort, and in our fast-paced society we don’t always want to give emotional labor the time it requires. Someone new is hired in a leadership or managerial role and they jump right into the “task” of doing their work. We short-cut and side-step getting to know the people with whom we spend the majority of our time. We wonder why the leadership team (or any team for that matter) doesn’t quite seem in sync. Or, we refer to our last half-day team building retreat from three years ago and then question why we don’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. 

It needs to happen every day.

Emotional labor is not a one-time event or fully covered in employee onboarding. It’s hard labor that needs to happen every day. It’s the act of doing work you don’t feel like, the act of having a conversation that might be difficult, etc.

I’ve watched leadership teams go from awkward and inefficient artificial harmony to moving rhythmically and easily with each other–efficient and graceful. This happens only after investing heavily in the work of emotional labor. Connecting to another human being and making a change even if it’s not easy to do in that moment, that’s leading with bold grace.

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