Is your ‘heavy lifting’ more emotional than physical?

Many people are discovering that the source of their exhaustion today is not the physical work they’re doing, or even the mental work, but instead it’s all the emotional labor they do to manage their emotions and the emotions of their customers, coworkers, bosses and family members. We often hear the comment, “I don’t know why I’m so tired, I didn’t DO anything today.” What people mean is,  “I didn’t produce any physical, tangible results today. All I did was put out fires all day so why am I so tired?”

The source of this perceptual error is not fully understanding how much our work life has changed in the last 50 years. I remember the first time I read about the shift in the nature of work we do in a book by Peter Drucker in the early 1990s. He was the first to bring to my attention the magnitude of our societal shift from making and moving goods to what he called “Knowledge Work”.

In 2005, Dan Pink wrote “A Whole New Mind” in which he brought forward the key insights of a Princeton study on the changing nature of work and the skills necessary to succeed in the new world of work. The key developments researched in the Princeton study, and published in “The New Division of Labor” in 2004, have to do with how jobs are evolving based on increasing computerization of certain kinds of rule-based work (algorithmic). From this research, Pink identified five key areas that humans bring a unique advantage that is difficult to computerize: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. (See more Dan Pink )

In Pink’s next book, “Drive” he continued to explore the change in work from the perspective of motivation. He described two categories of work: algorithmic work and heuristic. In algorithmic work the process is defined and the end product is produced by following a series of instructions down a single pathway to one outcome. Because this rules-based work can be well defined in a controlled environment it has been easy to computerize.  Heuristic work is what we do when the rules can not be specified in advance and there is no step-by-step process for producing the desired result. Each event requires problem-solving and adapting to a unique set of conditions. Clearly this makes it much harder to write algorithms to automate the work.

In the research Pink reviews, it becomes clear that algorithmic work and heuristic work need two different types of motivation. Algorithmic work still uses “carrot and stick” motivational strategies to produce either physical or emotional labor while heuristic work requires intrinsic motivation, internally driven motivation. Research has identified three distinct forms of intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Emotional Labor, the new work most of us are doing, can be motivated with either kind of motivation, depending on how the person is producing emotional labor. There are two ways to produce emotional labor: surface acting and deep acting. Surfacing acting is a rehearsed, often scripted, presentation of behavior (flight attendants saying, “Thank you for flying Delta” as we exit) that can feel ‘robotic’ to both the sender and receiver. This form of emotional labor is algorithmic and motivated by ‘carrot and stick’ strategies. The deep acting form of emotional labor requires intrinsic motivation to produce the desired behavior because we have to shift our internal emotional state to produce the desired behavior. In order to make that shift, you have to want to, for your own reasons. “Wanting to” is another way to think about intrinsic motivation.

We are just beginning to understand the skills, talents and motivational strategies for Emotional Labor and it’s clearly important for the future of work and workers. Learn more below in either the narrated client presentation or the edoc.






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