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What is Emotional Labor? (VIDEO)

What is Emotional Labor (video) Coach Darcy Eikenberg and Red Cape Revolution

Leadership can be hard. But one thing I’m finding while coaching my leadership clients is that it’s not the work that’s hard–it’s everything surrounding the work. There’s a term for that: emotional labor.

But what is emotional labor? On a recent LinkedIn Live, I dug deeper into this topic and reflected on what I’m learning about it. I’m no expert–I’m a seeker, just like you. But I have learned several lessons.

Here’s an excerpt (11 minutes, 16 sec) from the full conversation:

Watch the full video from my LinkedIn Life, “What is Emotional Labor?” here (43 min)

Send me an invitation to connect on LinkedIn here. Don’t forget to add a personal note (easier on desktop LinkedIn than mobile, FYI.)

Read the complete transcript below (unedited)

So there’s a concept that I found myself talking with clients a lot about recently. And there are actually some situations in my own life where the same idea keeps coming up. And so, in today’s Ask Me Anything, I’m going to do some of the asking, and I hope you’ll chime in, I hope you’ll join with your stories and your thoughts as well. But the topic that keeps coming up, is the topic of emotional labor.

What is emotional labor? Maybe you’ve heard of it, there’s a book that recently came out, there have been many books. As a matter of fact, in some research that I did, it sounds like the term was coined back in 1983. And so one of the definitions that I’ve heard about this idea of emotional labor is this. It’s putting another’s feelings or desires before your own.

And according to the journalist who wrote a new book called emotional labor, she says this kind of work is important and essential, but often invisible. And I think as I was reflecting on these themes that I’m hearing from my coaching clients lately, the things that they’re struggling with, in leading their teams in leading their lives, the things that I’m pressing with myself, on some projects that I care about, is not the work itself.

But it is the emotional labor. Now, I know many of you said, Oh, work would be great if it wasn’t for the people. Well, the truth is, it’s all people, isn’t it? All of our work is interconnected, there are very few things we can just do in our little box, and be relieved of the emotional labor. Or if we actually don’t pay attention to the emotional labor of the work, things don’t get done as well. Things get disrupted. Sometimes when we are blind to the emotional labor that we need to do to move something forward to get something done. What can happen is that later, it gets disrupted. Anybody ever have that happen to them? You think you have a plan, you think maybe you even have agreement? And then out of nowhere, a new voice comes up from somebody who has done something that hasn’t been agreed to? Or is disrupting what the flow of things already are. This happens so often. I had a situation recently, where I’m helping to lead a very complex transition. And we’ve had meetings on it. There are details galore. And one of the other participants in the team decided to move some things forward, on his own. And on the surface, that was great. It’s something needs to get done. But we already had other things in motion and the lack of being able to just think for a beat before taking action caused a lot of ripples and caused frustration, and caused us to have to like go back, and make sure are all the players on board.

You have likely experienced this in your own professional life, I am sure. So today we’ll spend some time talking about emotional labor. Now, I’m just gonna say it. I’m no expert. I’m going to tell you I’m going through it right now to I’m really thinking hard about what’s the emotional labor that I’m putting into projects and teams and things that I’m working on. And what are the choices that I get to make about where to invest my emotional labor and where to pull back. So

I mean, few notes that I’ll refer to from time to time. But let’s maybe start with why is it happened?

Why? Why do we even need this idea of emotional labor? Where did this come from? Well, first of all, if it’s not obvious, hello, human.

This is how we need to connect as humans. This is the true work of being a society where we live and love and are connected and do good things and do good work and be able to live our lives and be part of a world.

But what we often forget, or it gets pushed to the bottom of the list in our workplaces, is that being human having emotions is work. And this emotional labor often becomes invisible. Some of you may have heard me, use the old term, make the invisible visible, and emotional labor making that emotional labor visible is part of the things that when we are working, and we are working hard, and we are trying so hard to move things forward, and we were tired, and maybe it’s not quite clicking, we have to recognize even for ourselves, that we have to make the invisible visible, the invisible part of the emotional labor visible.

So we’ll talk about what gets in the way in a minute. But I think even just recognizing that part of what you might be experiencing when work is stressful, or you’re feeling just exhausted, and then looking at your calendar and say, but what did I do today, a lot of that might be the emotional labor, you’re putting into that. So it happens because we’re human and happens just because we’re wired to care about relationships. I had a client recently, on our initial call, say, Well, I’m a numbers person, I’m really not a people person. But what was interesting in that every conversation about the leader that she wanted to be and who she aspired to be what’s full of being an inspirational visionary leader who listens to people who connects people who trust people, and then gives them clear direction and lets them do their job and get out of the way. That’s not a person who doesn’t like people. It’s not even a person who’s not good with people.

So caring about relationships is part of all of our DNA, we might talk ourselves out of saying I don’t care. But the truth is, this is how we’re wired. Right? Biologically, our brains are wired for connection. And that really harkens back to that old lizard brain that we’ve talked about, the lizard brain wants to stay safe, the lizard brain wants to protect you. And knowing that you are accepted in the tribe is protection. So we care whether we can do the work to release caring in some situations or not, this is just part of who we are. So recognizing that that’s just a natural part of how we work that we need to be able to create space for it and recognize it and call it by name.

Another reason why I think the emotional labor happens and continues to build in a lot of our lives at work no matter what you do. And what your role is, is that nothing is straightforward. Everything is interconnected, everything is an onion to peel back. So we need to understand really what others are doing and how they do it often, to be able to get things done. Now, that doesn’t mean micromanaging, it doesn’t mean tell me every step and I want to check in with you every step of the way. There’s a lot of that that means understanding enough as to where I can offer more trust, or you can trust me of how we want to do this together. But it’s just not possible anymore.

I think in our complex projects that we work on in our complex world, to stay just in our silo, right in our ship, even within even if you’re critical of your organization because you’re like we just all work in our silos. The truth is even in your silo, there’s some emotional labor there some trying to understand who does what, what they care about how it interacts with the things that I’m responsible for, or the things that I want to do. So our workplace currently, and this goes for work, that is what we call knowledge work, as well as physical work of art, art, anybody who interacts with other people needs to understand the weight of emotional labor, what it takes to be able to interact with people and those in customer service roles, those in frontline employee roles. That’s actually where some of it originated–has anybody ever heard had to smile and nod when someone was rude to them or mean to them?

That’s emotional labor. It’s emotional labor to choose your response. And if you’ve been here with me before, you know, one of the things that I constantly teaching is that we only control three things. We control what we say, what we do, and what we think. And the thinking part takes building that muscle it takes time, right, our again, our safety brains, as lizard brains are designed to jump to the conclusion. So when we recognize that there is emotional labor, that is layered into our work, we cut ourselves some slack, we give ourselves a break. And we recognize what it actually is going to take, not just tasks, not just the time it takes to do the things. But the time it takes to feel to process to connect with others, and to be able to do the labor that actually is the glue for so much of the work that we do.

So if we know emotional labor is important, and if you’ve ever had a leader, or a manager or a team member, who said I see you, I appreciate the difficult spot you’re in, I’m so grateful to be working on this team with you, you know that that means a lot. And for them to take that action, it weighs a lot. And as little things can count toward lifting some of the emotional labor.

But why then if we know we all want to acknowledge each other, we want to support each other. We want to do our jobs and enable others to do what they need to do.

What gets in the way?

Well, there’s a couple of things that I’ve noticed. And that I’m noticing in the situation I’m going through right now is one is that emotional labor takes time.

One of the best pieces of advices that my friend John gave me when I first became a baby people manager. He said, there’s people take time.

You can’t put it on the schedule, often you can’t rush it, there are things that you have to create the space for the create whitespace for and sometimes and I think increasingly in what I’m seeing happening inside a lot of my clients companies, is that the space that we have to take is the space for us.

I believe that right now. Self-awareness is the new leadership superpower. If we haven’t taken the time, to be aware of how we think, how we feel, even to be cognizant of what we’re actually saying in our unguarded moments in our unprepared moments. If we haven’t done that self-reflection, that self-analysis, then it’s often likely that we might not put in the emotional labor, or we might think we are but it’s not getting us the result that we want.

Self-awareness is the new leadership superpower. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a fan of coaching not just doing it but also receiving it. Every good coach should have a coach being able to have someone else, peek in to listen to be in a safe place to be in a trusting relationship where there’s no right or wrong. It’s just understanding how we’re wired, how we think, and what choices actively we want to make about it.

So time gets in the way, because we don’t often take the time, not only with other people, but often just with ourselves to recognize that we have a lot of emotional labor going on. And we need to recognize that emotional labor is work. And it’s not the extra stuff that’s leftover at the end of the day. It is actually in many roles, especially as you continue to build your leadership career, it’s most of your day.

Another thing that gets in the way is that our personal hot buttons get triggered. I have a colleague that causes the conspiracy theory, I think of this and wrote about it in my book Red Cape Rescue, as our need to assume positive intent. That’s the skill, right? The skill is to assume positive intent. But the conspiracy theory is the behavior that happens. And here’s how that works.

Somebody sends you an email.

And whether it’s the tone, the language, the time that it comes, the who it’s from.

You fill in the gaps, you have a whole story about it, my friend talks about starting a new relationship, and getting a text and from that person, and, you know, texting back and forth, and then that, that that fade away, not hearing anything. And the conspiracy theory kicks in, do not tell me this hasn’t happened to you, especially with our digital media, email, test, Slack, everything.

We set up these expectations about what other people should do without any factual context of what might be going on with them. So we read doubt means don’t we read that he hasn’t responded to my text to he must hate me and never want to talk to me again.

It sounds so silly when we put it on the table. But this is how our brains trick us right? How our brains make up these conspiracy theories?

And it’s how the emotional labor of being able to connect to ourselves and say, Wait a minute, what else could this mean? That’s what I call assume positive intent. It assumes positive intent, that that person’s intention wasn’t to make you look bad, wasn’t intended to counteract the decisions that you’d made, or any number of motivations. It’s like, How can I assume positive intent, and often assuming positive intent means seeking more information, as Stephen Covey used to say, Seek first to understand, but when we’re not recognizing the emotional labor, that our projects, our leadership takes, we can easily jump to conclusions. He said this, because he wants that. She doesn’t like me. So she did that. Can even the absence of communication, we read things into what are the facts? What are the true circumstances, we can assume positive intent, but our personal hot buttons do get triggered.

And this is why emotional labor is harder, because we again, have to have that self-awareness of Oh, that’s my hot button. And the way that was said, or the approach of this person takes, it just triggers me. If we’re not self-aware of our biases of our hot buttons, it’s harder to recognize what is going to take for us to be able to manage the emotional labor. So one of the things that I find that’s helpful, and the thing I’ve been reflecting on recently, is just understanding and re understanding what my values are. And in Red Cape Rescue, there’s a whole exercise to find your own values and to be able to go through an exercise so that you are clear and it’s written down it’s on the page so that it’s not just vague floating around in your head. But the hot when somebody tricks your hot button when when somebody pushes a hot button of yours. I consistently find in working with my clients that it tracks back to a value you held.

So, for me, I have a high value of respect, I give a lot of benefit of the doubt, I can see a lot of gray of different people’s perspectives. And I expect that to be returned back to me too. It’s not respected like one over somebody, it’s kind of it’s an equal opportunity perspective. That’s just how I’m built.

So when someone questions, a decision, or someone does something that was Off Plan,

my hot button reads respect on that. And I have to school myself, that that may not have anything to do with respect at all, that may not be any really, it’s rarely ever about me. It’s mostly always about the other person, a perspective that they have. But my self awareness and the work that I have to continue to do, just like all of us, is to recognize that’s why that hurt, because somebody else could see the exact same email could hear the exact same conversation and say, no big.

Why would that be bothersome? It’s just fact. It’s just a some bullet points. It’s just an email.

This is also why when we’re working with our colleagues, and especially if you’re a leader of people, you will sometimes struggle to figure out, why is something such a big deal for my people? Like, that’s such a little thing? Why is that getting so hot? Why are we spending so much time on that.

And this goes back to understanding people’s values, right, understanding who they are, and they may not even be aware of it.

A situation that came up lately to that effort was somebody who really prided themselves on taking great care of their clients, to the point of taking calls at all hours, and just being somebody who was really super focused on making sure that the people that he was serving, got the best of him at all time.

And then it came up that there was an email that was missed. And it someone found out later, it’s like, oh, that email was in your inbox. And this person felt awful.

Because it hit against his value of taking care of my clients. Now, in reality, one missed email in a box of hundreds of emails every day, it happens. It’s nothing to beat anybody up over. But this person was really upset. Until recognizing, that’s why I care about that. That’s why I cared about what happened in the big scheme of things. Not a big deal. But in our little scheme of things right here in our lizard brain.

Those are what that’s why those things get lit up, why those hot buttons get pushed. So if you haven’t done the work to understand your values, what you value, and not just the generic stuff, oh, family home, there are, there’s no right or wrong value.

The way I like to often think about it, is that sometimes values might compete with each other. There’s no right or wrong. But for example, somebody that values competition, like yeah, let’s win, let’s get in there –might clash with somebody who values cooperation. It doesn’t mean they can’t work together. It doesn’t mean that they’re both are good values. It’s no good or bad. Both are values that are helpful. But when you put them together, side by side, it’s like hitting two keys on a piano next to each other individually. Each one is beautiful music, but together. It’s just noise. When we understand our values, and then do some of the emotional labor to understand the values of others that we’re working around. We can sometimes recognize that. Oh, they didn’t mean that to hit my my case.

Is my respect button, they didn’t mean that to harm me to insult me, that’s just my interpretation filter, because that’s my value. So our personal hot buttons get in the way of us doing and even seeing the emotional labor that needs to happen in our jobs all the time.

One more thing that I’ve noticed that gets in the way is this piece around, it’s just not visible.

And when we don’t make the invisible visible, we others don’t understand how difficult things are. Others don’t understand the time that things take. And others don’t understand the complexity that we may be working with.

I’ll often say to my coaching clients,

you make it look easy. Like your brain is already geared, you know, the 27 steps to get this one thing done. Like they’re not spelled out anywhere, you are just jumping to the next spot. But from the outside, what might be your 27 steps might look like one step. And some was like, why isn’t it done yet?

One of my favorite examples has come out of the communication space. Some of you know that I spent many years as a Communication Consultant, leading a group of communication consultants, and have my heart in marketing and communication and the challenges that go along with serving clients and internal teams in communication. And one of the people that I worked with would constantly refer to herself as a writer. Now, there’s truth in that there’s a portion of her work that was writing. But we were sitting in a client meeting once and she introduced herself as a writer. And I watched the faces of the other people in the room.

And the faces went from curious to you, okay. Next,

when I thought about why this was because this was a fabulous person is a fabulous person.

We sat down had a conversation, I said, Tell me everything that you do on a regular assignment. She thought a minute, she said, Well, you know, first I understand what the client needs and what the business reason is for the project that we’re taking on, then I will probably do some research on my own, then I’ll likely talk to some subject matter experts to understand the nuances and the specificities of the client’s situation, then I might create an outline of the product, the tool, whatever we’re doing, I will proofread it, I will get outside input on it, I’ll manage through a review process, and then we’ll deliver a draft to the client.

So there’s so much more in there than just a writer.

And for those of you who are in the communication space, and I think there are other spaces that are emerging like this, that some of the language that we might have used years ago about our roles is now undervaluing us. Writing in many ways in the day of AI and international global outsourcing, could be seen as a commodity, it’s not. But if someone doesn’t understand the 27 steps that you take to get to that one and product, they’re not going to value you fully. They’re not going to value the work that you do the role that you do. So layering in to our topic at hand about emotional labor, layering in the emotional labor that it takes to do your job. How do you make that more visible? How do you make that invisible, visible,

I think is the key to not being overwhelmed, being overstressed and making sure that you are accurately managing what your personal capacity is. Because emotional labor doesn’t weigh the same as other things, right? emotional labor can weigh a lot, especially if it’s not intuitive to us, especially if we maybe were raised or professionally trained in a technical level. But now it’s time for us to move to a leadership level.

As my friend John said, People take time. So recognizing that we have to make that time visible.

I actually think one of the challenges that we’ve had recently, especially as many of us have moved to remote or hybrid teams, is that it actually requires more emotional labor time, more direct people, leadership time.

And not asynchronous task time.

There’s a difference between here’s a list of tasks. And that being work, versus here’s a conversation and decisions and work we want to do together. That may have individual tasks later. But it’s different work, right it ways different. So recognizing that our emotional labor may not be visible. So that means we might need to talk about it more, we might need to just accept for ourselves that it’s there. I have a client who we were talking about this idea earlier this week, and it was like a light bulb went off. She’s like, Oh, that’s the thing. Oh, that’s why this is difficult. And even without any different solutions, just the acknowledgement, that it’s difficult, the acknowledgement that that’s where she needed to put her time.

Didn’t make her head get more time in the day, it didn’t make the emotional labor any easier. But it brought an acceptance of that’s why these things are complex. That’s why when we plan, we never miss our deadlines. Because we’re planning tasks on a page. And we’re not planning people, and the time in between that it takes to make transitions to be able to make change, to be able to bring people along all the things. So it is not visible. So it’s not always valued your job, make the invisible visible. Talk about it doesn’t mean you have to say oh, people are awful people are hard. And you know, life is tough. It’s like no, we need to make sure we’re investing time with the team. We need to have these different conversations before we move forward. Because investing an hour upfront here with our stakeholders, is going to save us 10 hours on the back end. But we often just need to make that visible, we often also need to do a good job of making sure that we’re making that time for ourselves to do it, which gets into the third part of this conversation I wanted to share with you today.

What do we need to do about it? If emotional labor is needed? It’s actually in our DNA. And it can be stressful, time consuming.

How do we as leaders manage?

So I think the first step is to recognize it as legit work.

So often we put the thinking and the planning off, we say, well, I’ve got a day full of meetings, all do that over the weekend, or on vacation. I’ll think about that some more.

But it never happens, right? It never gets done. We keep kicking the can down the road. So how can you look at your real life schedule right now. And recognize what’s the emotional labor that actually needs to be planned into your time thinking is work. Planning is work.

We often have a natural tendency to think that only doing is work.

But one of the things that I work with with my clients is making sure that they have time blocked in their calendar on a regular basis. That is their thinking time, their self reflection time, their look back time. Sometimes it comes in the form of private coaching. Sometimes it just comes in the form of them setting a appointment on their calendar where they leave the house at their regular time, but they go sit in the coffee shop for an hour before going in to the office. creating that space is essential in order to recognize that thinking work, emotional labor processes

Seeing people. That’s work. It’s not a side gig. That’s all work.

Another thing that we need to do is that accept that it’s a part of other people’s work, too.

And also, we need to accept that emotional labor isn’t always easy.

That’s where the idea of appreciation comes in strong.

I mentioned earlier that in a tough project I’m working through right now, one of the things that has mattered to me this made a big difference to me, is just getting a little text. Have you got this? I know it’s hard.

We, you know, we’ve got your back. Thank you, Phyllis, little appreciation things. That’s emotional labor to be the one giving that and to know that that’s helpful to receive. As a leader, I think we often underestimate the power of appreciation.

The art of appreciation, the art of acknowledgment, helps people see progress. And one of the things that we know from the research is that

when people see progress, they feel more successful and satisfied than when they feel like they’re going in circles. But how do you see progress when you are part of a long-term change, or a big project, or maybe your job is the same general thing every day? And there’s not a finish line, there’s not a destination.

Making sure that we’re adding in as leaders, as much acknowledgment and appreciation for our team is important to be able to help them see the progress.

We often we teach people how to treat us. And I often think that when I’m in the mood for more appreciation, I have to up my own game, I have to send it back. The Mac is giving me fireworks on my thumbs up. So accepting that that’s that emotional labor as part of your people’s work. And not just easy.

I think also, what we need to do is we need to look where more emotional labor is needed.

Have you ever been on a project that’s just stuck. That’s just like, I want to throw up my hands, I want to go back to the beginning.

Sometimes we need a hard reset. Sometimes we need to recognize there might have been some emotional labor we didn’t get done early on. And maybe what the thing is that we have to do is pull the players together. And this is where I think one of the other skills that I’m working with a lot of my leaders on right now is facilitation. I’m very fortunate to have some clients where I’m doing facilitation and leadership development with their teams. And it’s a skill we all can learn. How do we facilitate a broader conversation? How do we put the elephants in the room and call them by their right names? But recognizing that when things are rocky when things are tough?

Doing more squeezing more juice out of the orange may not be the answer. The answer may very well be we have to invest in more emotional labor. That might mean a meeting, an off site retreat, it may mean just a timeout. A regroup may mean that the right thing for you is to actually have individual conversation with every player. I know a lot of you rolling your eyes when you think about that. But sometimes, especially in a more disconnected, remote world.

Having that one-to-one touch can help people hear a similar message be and feel like they are heard. So think about for you, where is more emotional labor needed.

And then I think the other thing we need to do is just keep understanding ourselves and our triggers, and our biases. I shared with you earlier, recognizing that one of my values of respect had been triggered in a situation lately. So bringing that to the surface looking at it and saying, How do I want to be going forward? Who is the leader? Who is the person? I want to be in the situation? Yeah, I’m not saying it’s easy. And I’m not saying I have all the answers. But being able to stop and ask yourself the question can keep you from continuing to step in it as well happens when we let our triggers go.

So with that, those are just some thoughts on this idea of emotional labor. That just seems to keep popping up, I think you’re going to hear this term, more and more. And I don’t think it’s just for working women anymore. In many ways, the idea of emotional labor also came from women doing more of the, the social events and the feel good things. But what I’m talking about is beyond that.

I’m talking about what it actually takes today to interact as human with humans. And recognizing that emotional labor takes time, takes energy, it takes self-awareness. And it takes understanding that others are doing that too. Or if you’re a leader, that they may need to learn how not only how to do it, but that it’s okay to take the time to be able to help people manage through whatever they’re managing.

I would love to hear your comments, your thoughts, your questions about emotional labor. Tell me what’s happened to you? What experiences that you’ve had, maybe a lesson or a learning that I can learn from as again, I’m a traveler going through this, and not someone who’s here saying I have all the answers.

You all have the answers in you. We all just need to keep bringing them out and doing our good work in the world with the emotional labor that we can give.

Thanks so much for being here today. Again, I’m committed to being here every month we’ll have next month we’ll be back with some more of your questions. Or if there’s a topic that you’d like to hear more about, please do. And please join me on our red cape insider community at You can find it on red cape and we will see you every week in email there.

Red Cape Rescue Available Now on Audible