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Insensitivity: A Good Technique?

By Bill Nicolich,

Today we have a guest editorial from Bill Nicolich as Steve Jones is traveling.

Often when I hear discussions about emotion at work, particularly from management but also from colleagues that inhabit aggressive roles, the message is that emotions are part of the problem, and they should be set aside. They don't do knowledge workers any good. In fact, it often stands in the way of more options and making needed changes.

Perhaps we can take a cue from working with compilers. The compiler doesn't give one rip about our feelings. If there's any errors of syntax that it can find, it sends us the feedback: ERROR. End of story. No whining, sniveling, gnashing will persuade the compiler to appreciate the work we've done. The compiler is such a wonderful thing. It's so efficient and always tells a kind of truth. Maybe, some think, we should become more like a compiler.

I shouldn't say that emotions are completely frowned upon. There are some emotional keys in the register that are openly encouraged. People are encouraged to find enthusiasm for new technologies, for learning new ways of doing things, for getting corrected, for delivering on time and on budget - and so forth.

But when I step back and look at the register of emotions that the pressures of software development tends to encourage - it doesn't look right to me. In fact, it almost looks like an absurd exercise of trying to make people inhuman. I think it's time to take a look at what emotions are and gain some perspective.

For that I turn to a philosopher, Robert C. Solomon who has done more thining about emotions then most people have. His book "The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life" contains some nice quotes that I'll refer to.

At times I witness a colleage assuming a completely stoic expression, making a suggestion that runs all over the opinions and mental commitments of a variety of people, and somehow this cutting to the chase of what should be done is viewed as bold, heroic and refreshing. What it reminds me of is sort of a passionless "suffocation of the soul by which that withered and joyless imposter that so often passes as 'wisdom'" shows itself in the workplace (Solomon).

In arguing to regain the full register of human emotions, I have the definitions of what it is to be human on my side. I'll turn the table and suggest that what is absurd is to try to make humans something other than human. As a species, along with the other social species that can be observed at the zoo or out in the wild, we have a broad register of emotions and we are territorial. Sure, territorial behavior in knowledge work can get out of hand and become a problem, but that's true with any key in the emotional register. Any emotion can become pathological. That doesn't call for the complete expulsion of the emotion, but the harnessing of it.

My next argument is from Solomon where he claims that emotions are so intwined with the evaluative judgments which they are associated with that they become indistinguishable - and that in a real sense, emotions are judgments that we make about the world and our place in it.

Knowledge work, and software development in particular, is at the core, all about making good judgments - about what moves to make given the changing circumstances, challenges and opportunities in front of us. If you'll allow that emotions stem from the same basis as reason - in that they are also a form of judgment - then it becomes clear that their complete removal is unwarranted if not absurd.

Another way to state this comes from Solomon: "It's often said in philosophy and elsewhere that reason must rule the passions; ... To divide the human soul into reason and passion, setting one against the other in a struggle for control, one to be the master and one to be the slave, divides us against ourselves, forcing us to each be defensively half a person, instead of a harmonious whole ... There is no different 'faculties,' only differences in scope and perspective (between reason and the passions)."

Coming from a complementary but slightly different angle is Robert Frank who argues that emotions are a form of commitment. A dog stares us down with an aggressive attitude - and even though we don't speak dog - we get the message clearly that the dog is committed to aggression if we invade its territory. So we too show that we truly are committed to various relationships and various causes through our emotions. Really, this goes to explaining why any of the species have a register of emotions in the first place - and why they are intertwined with communication. Often commitments just need some acknowledgement.

Let's evaluate this notion of insensitivity as a good technique. Decision-makers can wield insensitivity toward people's emotions and perhaps get a change to happen more quickly - and then this technique gets reinforced. But to the extent that people have choices about who to work with and where to work, why wouldn't they choose to work in places that are more courteous and understanding of their commitments and judgments?

We're learning that people work hardest for a cause. That's emotion. If an environment deals damage to a person's self concept or emotional register, what will that do to motivation and commitment?

On the side of managers and decision-makers, I think they are better off under the exercise of negotiating with real humans - because they will get a chance to exercise and further develop social maturity, emotional intelligence and the like. If they skirt the exercise, will they not atrophy?

So-called "benevolent dictators" and decision-makers in knowledge work environments should exercise common courtesy, respect and sensitivity more often and that as a whole, the industry has moved too far to one side of that false dichotamy between reason and the passions.

This is just one of the many indicators that software development is a young profession and that emotional intelligence and maturity is critical among all the various roles involved.

The ideal of team-based design work is not to set up a vacuum devoid of emotions. That is an inherently evasive approach of avoiding conflicts and responsibilities. The ideal is to get better at managing the collisions and differences of judgments among people through a maturing process and all the while making an environment where people feel understood and appreciated.

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