I’ve always struggled with the “so-called” concept of professionalism. Is your credibility or performance affected by bringing your personal life to work? I want to believe we’re all human above professionals, and that being yourself at work, including the baggage you bring with you, will not only be beneficial for your mental health but also bring you closer to your colleagues. With some healthy boundaries, of course.
Let’s have a look a Dunbar’s number. According to Wikipedia, it is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. Truth is, our brains are limited in the numbers on which we can maintain meaningful, deep contacts. Turns out we have roughly the capacity to keep in touch with around 150 or 200 people, and of course this is just the raw number of all our daily interactions. Making these interactions meaningful is a far trickier subject. Quite a fascinating topic when we cross-compare this number with our so-called friends on social media. But that is another subject that will talk about another time.
For some reason we choose to stereotype ourselves with what being truly professional means. You need to:
- be serious
- keep your composure
- be polite
- keep your personal life to yourself (it isn’t relevant to the business)
- have decent manners
And, on top of all that, be knowledgeable, available, kind, and hide all signs of weakness.
That is, in itself, a huge pressure, no matter how much we live with it daily. You are not only expected to be able to do your job, but even thrive and over-perform.
In short: work well, proactively, productively, and keep your emotions quiet. That is what the old world has taught me. Well, I refuse to believe that.
I recently attended another magnificent Cambridge Agile Exchange event where we performed a simulation of a reboot team event, where we played some Agile games and analysed some of our individual practices. While I encourage you all to see it in action in the Agile Exchange Youtube channel, I will speak today about one of the games that I found profoundly interesting: the professional journey lifeline.
It is, essentially, a timeline of events during our professional lives, adding details on what triggered the highs and lows. In it, I added life events that were both professional and personal, and ended up creating an accurate graph about my life from an emotional and motivational perspective.
What really got me hooked to it is how fascinating personal and professional life can be when put together, and how one doesn’t differ too much from the other. Work is an essential part of life and being in a bad working place can make your personal life miserable. However, a good or bad personal event isn’t supposed to affect your work. Except it does.
You all have probably noticed I have not updated the blog in nearly three months. The reason is that I’ve been and I’m still going through a particularly tough moment of my personal life (see graph above). I find difficult not just finding the time but also the focus in writing a decent blog post. I am of course able to move on and be productive at work. My mood and emotions are just sometimes on the verge and I am struggling from a personal perspective. For me, the logical and mature thing to do in this case is let it out. Speak about it. Let my line manager know what I’m going through, but also to the people I work with.
There is a very thin line between cheap drama, drawing unnecessary attention and simply being constructively able to express and share your emotions. This is a topic related to the always fascinating and complex art of emotional intelligence, which can and must be related to work practices.
Here’s a very practical example: in my years of professional experience, I’ve seen too many cases where people ended up leaving their jobs due to emotional constraints. Dealing with that in itself is tough; not finding compassion and empathy from your employer can just make it unbearable. The pressure of not being allowed to be an emotional being (like I am) did make these people reach a level of aggressiveness (or passive-aggressiveness) that made their presence in the office toxic, at times crossing some lines to the point of no return.
I mentioned Dunbar’s number earlier because we somehow make the unwilling decision to leave the people we spent most of our time with during the working week outside our emotional world. And I believe this is a mistake. There are only so very few people we can meaningfully interact out of those 150 (your best friend? your life partner? part of your family?), so many times our very own work colleagues do not get shortlisted. And no, with this I don’t say we all should be best friends at work or become emotionally attached; I simply say searching for empathy will have more chances of finding it than no search at all. And the employer also has the moral responsibility to send the message out: you (my employee) are part of my family, so family is here to help.
Lack of empathy can be toxic. And this is something we all professionals need to have into account and learn from each other. It’s a social and educational matter. We all have a life outside the working place, and even if our situation is radically different from our peers, it should never be awkward to talk about it. It is just not human.
I’ve read so many articles about pros and cons regarding emotions in the workplace, and after reading as much as I could, I came to the conclusion that while these emotions should have boundaries, they must be acknowledged. Human companies supporting their employees will find more engagement and happiness. And yes, productivity too.
My recommendation today: a book called Against empathy: the case for rational compassion by Paul Bloom. An interesting take about empathy being judgemental against the concept of compassion. Both words exist for a reason.
And my takeaway: just be yourself at work. Speak out. Conceal if that is your choice. But never judge or compare your peer colleague’s personal situation or ways to express them. Tomorrow it could be you. And in doing this, you will be contributing to bring positive emotions in your workplace. And there’s nothing wrong in that, is there? Just don’t over-correct yourself, that cannot be good for your mind.
I encourage you all to draw your professional lifeline and, especially, compare the results and the relativity of these events once some time has passed. Will give you a great perspective about the relativity of good and bad events in life.