When You Wear Your Emotions at Work

Just don't let it change your decisions.

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Well before he had written a word about management, Peter Drucker learned just how high people’s passions can run at the office.

It was the early 1930s, and the then-24-year-old Drucker had been hired as an analyst at a London merchant back called Freedberg & Co. One of his first assignments was to help settle a dispute with a firm in Amsterdam that supposedly owed Freedberg a bunch of money.

Drucker scoured the books and determined that, in fact, the Dutch weren’t on the hook for nearly as much as everybody at his bank thought. The partner who’d been pressing the matter for months was “extremely angry” with the finding, Drucker recalled. He blew up. “I don’t need enemies if I have you for a friend,” he told Drucker.

I’ve been thinking about the role that emotions play in the workplace since reading a Wall Street Journal piece this week about a campaign being waged by the mayor of New Bedford, Mass., to save the one-time headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway from being razed to make room for a parking lot.

The rundown building was the home of a textile manufacturer that was acquired in 1965 by Warren Buffett. He used the cash flow from the mill to help fund the nascent growth of his conglomerate, which kept the Berkshire Hathaway name.

Interestingly, Buffett himself has no sentimental attachment to the property. “I don’t know what you’d do with that place,” the billionaire said. But, as the Journal article noted, this doesn’t mean that Buffett’s own emotions were never fully on display there.

Indeed, Buffett originally got tangled up with Berkshire Hathaway when he tried to sell some stock back to the textile maker. He thought he had a deal, only to find that Berkshire Hathaway’s president had dropped the offer price at the last minute. “The alleged lowball offer angered . . . Buffett, who then amassed a majority stake in Berkshire Hathaway and gained a seat on its board with the intent of replacing” the company’s top executives, the Journal recounted. Instead, they quickly resigned.

In an ideal world, resentment and rage would never seep into our professional lives. In its purest form, work is “not built on personal likes or dislikes,” Drucker wrote in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “It can function without making emotional demands. A woman can work very well with somebody whom she never sees away from the job, and for whom she feels neither friendship nor warmth nor liking. She can even function well in a work relationship with somebody whom she dislikes—if only she respects the other person’s workmanship.”

But things rarely, if ever, unfold so neatly. Our colleagues can drive us mad at times. The boss can infuriate us. A bad day at work can leave us feeling anxious and despondent. In the end, Drucker acknowledged, there is no escaping it: Work is “embedded in man’s life, in his emotions, in his existence in society and community, and in his relationship to himself.”

The trick is to recognize that this is true, even for the most clear-eyed executive—and to calibrate one’s behavior accordingly.

One area in which emotion often trumps reason is when deciding whether to stop making a particular product or offering a certain service—even though it has plainly outlived its usefulness. To admit that something has become obsolete, or been an outright flop, is for many deeply painful.

“Businessmen are just as sentimental about yesterday as bureaucrats,” Drucker wrote in The Age of Discontinuity. “They are just as reluctant to abandon anything. They are just as likely to respond to the failure of a product or program by doubling the efforts invested in it.” (Perhaps even Buffett fell victim to this; when in 1985 he finally shuttered the old New Bedford textile mill, which had long been battered by foreign competition, he confessed to shareholders, “I should be faulted for not quitting sooner.”)

Emotion can also push executives to take actions that might seem valiant, but ultimately are unwise. Drucker pointed out, for example, how in the early 1970s the Canadian corporation Deltec kept open its meatpacking operations in Argentina, well after others had quit, so that the region’s poor wouldn’t be rendered jobless. The company wound up throwing away a lot of money on a quixotic aim, leaving many disappointed.

“Deltec,” Drucker concluded, “may be vulnerable to the charge that to keep a plant open when every other major meatpacker had reached the conclusion that the business could not survive was sentimentality rather than social responsibility.”

The biggest mistake that managers make is to believe that they can tame workers’ emotions by simply delivering cheery speeches or chirpy memos. In far too many companies, Drucker observed, there is “so much talk . . . about ‘giving workers a sense of responsibility’ and so little about their responsibility, so much emphasis on their ‘feeling of importance’ and so little on making them and their work important.” All such rhetoric does, he added, is come across as “soothing syrup for irritable children.”

The traditional maxim of human relations departments—“the happy worker is an efficient and productive worker”—is “at best a half truth,” Drucker wrote. “It is not the business of the enterprise to create happiness but to make and sell shoes.”

But here’s the real secret: When workers are contributing to that core mission in a meaningful way, they are bound to experience the most positive kind of emotion: joy. As Drucker explained, “Those who perform love what they’re doing.”

No wonder Warren Buffett is always smiling.