How free are you to be yourself at work?

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By Bernadette Healy

Anxiety and issues around levels of responsibility are two of the most common reasons why lawyers attend counselling:[1]

  • Anxiety is often reported as a non-specific kind of experience and is frequently associated with symptoms such as constant scanning of your personal world for possible signs of future threat, excessive worrying about past situations, and negative thoughts such as concerns about failure and approval-seeking and physical sensations such as agitation.
  • Troubling feelings related to responsibility include: taking on too much responsibility and wondering how the effort to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ can be maintained; stress around too much responsibility combined with too little autonomy particularly with regard to decision-making scope; and issues around inconsistency about responsibility such as seeking high task responsibility but resisting or struggling with taking responsibility for personal reactions.

Early in the counselling process it is very common for lawyers (and others who have highly developed thinking skills) to intellectualise difficult situations and to resist or be unaware of the feelings underlying their thoughts about the difficulty.

Obviously thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected but the feeling aspect tends to be neglected, particularly for those working in professions where rationality and intellectual capacity are greatly prized. This neglect can lead to a general feeling of being cut off from oneself and others, and from the full range of your own feelings.

Cutting off and distancing behaviours are more likely to happen when work roles have associated expectations about feelings which are at odds with our own. In some cases it may be that work demands that one ought not to have any feeling responses at all.

Hoschchild[2] suggests that organisations turn emotional responses into commodities through the ‘purchase’ of expectation implicit in the job description.  Emotional labour is a term used by Hoschchild to describe the effort required by individuals to either exhibit a particular emotional response which not actually being felt, or suppress a felt emotion in order to satisfy work role expectations.

This behaviour is expected within many workplaces in which certain emotions cannot be displayed, in order that a particular outward appearance is maintained. Emotional labour is further described as either requiring surface acting or deeper acting. Surface acting is when we fake an emotional reaction in order to fool others in the interest of performing a work role, but we are not deceiving ourselves.  Deep acting happens at an internal psyche level when we attempt to alter how we feel or experience a situation in order to comply with work role expectations.

Feeling compelled to sustain deep acting over a prolonged period – which is done as a means of dispelling dissonance between expected work self and self – eventually leads to issues such as alienation, burnout and inauthenticity. [3]

In addition to being mindful of the extent to which your organisation may be buying a particular emotional response from you, it is important that you manage your own wellbeing by making sure that you do not self-commodify.  In other words you need to make sure that you know who you are and how you feel and how to remain true to that while in your professional role.

As with any self-improvement or even self-care process, you need to start with self-reflection in order to increase your understanding of yourself, including identifying your values and core beliefs.  This will help you to predict and prepare for possible values clashes and triggering situations at work, and to work out to what extent you may be using ‘deep acting’ to reduce the dissonance between yourself and your organisation’s expectation of you.

[1] Based on my own practice experience

[2] The managed heart Commercialization of human feeling,(2003)

[3] Rebecca, Erickson Christian Ritter  2001  Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2 pp. 146-163