Emotions aren’t dark, people are

A while ago the printing press was invented. It was all set to wow the world with its newness. Those with the knowledge made lots of money from it, and soon it became a thing of the masses. What no-one knew at the time was if it was going to be used for good or for evil. Sure people knew about books, and that you could write newspapers, but what else would they write about? This tool, of communication, it became this brilliant way of spreading a message. And at some point along the way, someone decided they’d use this method of communication to spread messages which were bad, which were manipulative, and which were wrong in many respects. This printing press, it had a dark side.

There was this other invention in the 19th century which was again set to revolutionise the way people communicated with one another. The telephone had given people a way to suddenly talk to people anywhere in the world. At first, people were sceptical about it – who would you possibly call? And eventually, this communication tool, was too used for nefarious and dark purposes. Le Sigh.

The 19th century also saw another invention take shape in the form of the automobile. Yes, what we commonly know as cars. At first it was the resolve of the few. These few drove these contraptions and made others jealous they owned such things. Some even had servants driving them for them and taking them to soirees and banquets. Would it surprise you to learn that even this amazing transportation tool became a tool of evil? It too had a dark side that no-one expected? It could kill. It could maim. It could disfigure. A truly horrible invention.

I’m sorry, am I patronising you?

In a recent article, Adam Grant would have us believe the theory known as emotional intelligence has a dark side. He describes research that points to people learning how to be emotionally intelligent in order to manipulate others. Or said another way – people who want to exert power over others, learn how to do something enough so that they can get their way. People have been learning how to manipulate others since time began. And best of all, they’ve used whatever tool has been available to them.

Emotional intelligence isn’t a bad or good tool. It’s just a theory. It helps us to understand human dynamics in a way that most people can benefit from. Can people use it for their own dark purposes? Of course they can. That’s because people have their own desires and ambitions they are trying to achieve.

You can liken this to committing emotional fraud. I think you’re trying to help me out, and that you’re making positive actions towards me, whereas in actual fact you’re trying to harm me in some way and make me worse off.

If you choose to use it for a dark purpose, that’s because you’re what my kids would call a bad person. The research that’s being done to understand how people are using EI as a manipulative tool is non-important research. It tells us nothing about human behaviour we don’t already know. People actively choose whether they do good or bad deeds. Learning how to use EI for negative purposes is no different than learning how to use the internet to send spam email or worse.

There is plenty of good research in the field of EI which helps us to better understand what happens to us when emotions are felt or expressed. We are now understanding the physiological changes the body goes through when different emotions are felt. We’ve got a clear idea of how emotions help prepare the body and mind for certain actions. We understand how to help someone develop their EI in order that they can have better and more positive relationships. That’s where the interesting research is happening, and that’s where we should be looking to continue the debate.

And I say unto thee… live.

Learning and development. It’s boring.

Presentations. They’re boring too.

HR. Yup, them too.

Finance. Incredibly so.

Business itself. Also boring.

Nothing about anything we do on a day to day basis is interesting in corporate life. Not really.

Doctors, the police, firefighters, teachers. They’re interesting. They provide a service very few of us can.

Not us lot though.

We’re boring.


Except for those of us who bring things to life.

We take the mundane and the uninteresting and we shake it up a little until it becomes interesting.

We see purpose behind things.

Those figures? They tell a story.

Those policies? Help others live.

Those models? Create new ways of thinking.

That new business model? Helps people live a fulfilled life.


What are you going to make interesting?

Who are you at work?

There’s been a lot of work done around persona’s we adopt when at work, how it differs to the home environment, and how it differs when we’re with friends. Some people will pretend to be someone in order to fit the environment they’re on. Some people will not know how to act in a certain environment and display behaviours which are either atypical of them, or atypical to others. Some people enjoy their environment and go on to be who they are naturally.

Last week, at the #connectinghr unconference, I was part of a discussion where the question was raised by @gmcglyne – how do you help the quiet people be heard in organisations? It was a good question, which made me think about what we’re trying to get from the question. It brought me to actually consider a different question, which in turn addresses this question. How do you be your authentic self at work?

That, for me, is a very different question with quite a few considerations to bear in mind.

In a recent exit interview, I asked the question, have their personal talents been utilised and developed? The person in question started with us as a junior, and after 3 1/2 years has decided to move on to a different company for a different role. For them, they are just starting their journey of learning to have a career, a proper job and learning about themselves, what they’re good at, and what they’re bad at. They have little awareness of what any of this means, yet. We will all know that this is an ever continuing journey, and is a constantly changing landscape.

Ask someone who has been in a job for life, like many civil servants, and the vast majority will be in roles that have served them well in order they can live a happy life of some description. Self-development may have happened along the way, and progression may have happened along the way, but by and large it’ll be keep your head down type attitude and get on and do a good job.

Consider when someone goes through a change in their personal life. This changes their outlook dramatically. They forget who they are, let alone what they’re coming to work for. People die, houses get damaged, personal items get stolen, marriages break down, it’s all a big mess. And it screws with your head something chronic. How in the world are you meant to operate normally when all this happens?

You remember when Bob got promoted above Bertina? That caused a whole host of politics at work. Unexpected stress for one collective, unexpected joy for another. Somewhere in between, friction and challenges that in some cases helped work to happen, in other cases acted as a direct barrier. Ugh.

So my initial question becomes quite difficult to answer. How do you be your authentic self at work? And what does it mean to be authentic? And who cares if you’re being authentic? And does being authentic mean you’re actually working at your best? And is being authentic actually beneficial to the company?And what responsibility does an organisation have to help you be authentic?

What responsibility does an organisation have to help you be authentic? Interesting. We (as in organisations) will try to help you have a good recruitment experience. We will try to ensure you are onboarded well (read this post by @JulesJ85 for a good account of where this goes wrong). We will try to have good performance management systems in place. We will try and think about how we reward and recognise your efforts so that you can feel motivated to do more work for us. Isn’t this enough? If we’re able, we may try and offer some learning and development so you can feel like you’re being invested in. Are we now also meant to try and help you be authentic?

What personal responsibility is there to be authentic at work? If I’m a generally positive person, and all smiles and sunshine, why is this a more acceptable set of behaviours to display? What happens when I’m down, feeling grumpy and generally angry at the world? That’s me being authentic too, so why should I have to play down the set of accompanying behaviours? And what if I don’t agree with the way projects are being managed or the way a team is doing their work, am I not meant to comment and contribute? How about when I’m actively supporting a change to happen, regardless of how it seems it will be received by others?

Now, I’m all bought in to the idea that we should be authentic at work. The problem is, very few of us understand what this means. Further, few of us will make the efforts for it to happen genuinely. Most will just carry on and do work, because that’s all they need to do. I’m mindful the self-help books will espouse that authenticity is the key to success. There are, though, a set of behaviours which enable authenticity to happen. So, my take home message? Be yourself. At your peril.