The vulnerable dead: On emotional expression in the workplace

| Senior Forum Editor
Suits, dresses, and other typical workplace outfits are illustrated in various colors.Illustration by Sophie Leong

During the final week of my internship, each employee gave a presentation on what we’d learned. Naturally, our Program Director went first.

“I’ve gotten a lot of opinions on this — like, you don’t know how many different perspectives I’ve asked for,” they began, changing the screen to a meme of a little boy looking out a bus window with a quirky caption that only teachers would find funny.

“But to be clear, we’re not ‘friends.’ I’m your boss.” The light laughter falls quiet enough to hear an uncomfortable clearing of throats and scuffles of chairs; interns lined up by the Mr. Coffee pot in the back to quickly find their seats. 

Et tu, PD?

In the article Ban the Word ‘Boss,’ author JJ Rosen says of his consulting firm, “We not only want to promote respectful debate, we want to actively discourage a boss-centered ‘yes-people’ culture.” While the term has long been a part of corporate American rhetoric, many companies and organizations are rebranding.

Later that same afternoon, a group of us went swimming, floating as we reminisced on our summer as co-teachers coming to a close. The neon pool lights came on when the sun set, signaling the impending dark and a break in our conversation.

“So…about their announcement today at the meeting — we’re ‘not friends?’”

“Oh my god.” 

“Girl, please.”

“As if that’s even just their decision at this point.”

We felt collectively misled. We’d been encouraged — even obligated — to make a commitment to bonding and being open with our stories, to nurturing the “family units” we’d built with our students and fellow teachers. In environments like this one, the expressed ideals of professionalism (like uselessly strict dress codes, verbal code-switching, and paternalistic hierarchy) seemed dated and misplaced next to brochure program values touting transgressive, community-based spaces for marginalized youth and teachers. 

In educational activist Bettina Love’s book “We Want To Do More Than Survive,” she describes the community organization, FIST, run by impassioned educators who were united in their goals to uplift the underserved communities they worked in. “Too often we think the work of fighting oppression is just intellectual. The real work is personal, emotional, spiritual, and communal … In FIST there was no questioning why we were there and what the objective was.”

With this in mind, especially for workplaces that double as “safe spaces” for emotional vulnerability and social justice, are reformation and decentralization possible in a professional culture still rooted in patriarchy and whiteness? And is there still a need — or even room — for a “boss” in a traditional sense?

Crying’s Corporate Makeover

Team building that involves sharing one’s fears and weaknesses is becoming more prevalent, and early connections provide a helpful basis for openness later. However, whether or not this is beneficial seems dependent on other factors. 

The chief people officer at Yelp Inc., Carmen Whitney Orr, says she views increased openness about mental health as a positive result of the pandemic but fears it “won’t last without care and attention.” Conditionally, Callum Borchers, Wall Street Journal Columnist, adds that for those “without status,” it’s unwise to be too vulnerable about personal issues, citing the story of a man who felt his disclosure had been misused when a leave of absence led to important decisions being made without him.

For the previously mentioned internship, each person presented an item of emotional significance in a team-building exercise. A friend described a similar experience in joining a facilitation organization at WashU where members also swapped vulnerable stories as a part of onboarding. For progressive companies and organizations, building culture is fundamental for the kind of work they want to do. But when expressed values and practices are misaligned, the false perception of a “safe space” does more harm than good.

Workplaces of Life and Death

Abolitionist teaching is built on the cultural wealth of students’ communities and creating classrooms in parallel with those communities …where people … fight together in pursuit of creating a homeplace that represents their hopes and dreams.” 

But it’s hardly possible to create said homeplace when the opinions and experiences of culturally relevant educators aren’t valued. Throughout the internship, the only white Program Director, in cahoots with the white Executive Director, would fire or cause the leave of over half the teachers at her site, all people of color, and vouch for the (unfulfilled) dismissal of several not even under her leadership. Thankfully she had an “equal education matters” computer sticker to soften the blow, but her willful distance from the community she’d integrated herself in — as a person with authority — had the unfortunate ability to harm the students and teachers she was supposedly there to serve.

Regarding philanthropy and nonprofit work, Teju Cole says, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Unlearning and unpacking microaggressions and internalized racism is an important part of rebuilding educational spaces if one is to prevent regressing into a Euro-centric culture and value system. 

In Kevin Gannon’s book “Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, the chapter “Classrooms of Death” says in schools for life, educators “emphasized practical subjects and embodied what today we would call a mind-body-spirit approach to learning,” and schools of death were “bound up in stultifying tradition.” In application to any modern work environment, a workplace for life might look like one that takes a mind-body-spirit approach to valuing and centering professional diversity rather than attempting to neutralize it.

Boss vs. Employer vs. Instructor vs. Director vs. Mentor vs. Leader

The American word “boss” is derived from the Dutch version of the word “master;” Americans adopted the switch in the mid-19th century after the abolition of slavery. As written in the Cambridge Dictionary, an instructor’s job is to teach a practical skill; a director is the manager of an organization, company, or college; a mentor can include a trusted counselor, guide, and in some scenarios, double as a lifelong friend

In the Antonio Tooley article, Why A Boss Isn’t Always a Leader, Tooley explains that the expectations of a boss are different from a leader in that a “boss” “creates fear” whereas “a good leader will treat you as their equal.” In the article Your Boss Or Your Mentor? Why You Should Know The Difference, it’s argued that for genuine collaboration to occur at all — that is, for an environment where both parties can give and receive guidance and exchange mutual vulnerability — there’s really no room for a “boss” in a typical sense.

In any workspace, there’s an expectation that at least one present party has achieved unique expertise and is there to guide the rest. But contrary to a leader or someone otherwise capable of becoming a reliable confidant, is it ever safe to be vulnerable with your boss? If the terminology still stands then presumably so does the golden rule; your boss is not your friend.

Family, Not Friends (Professionally Speaking)

“Love your [organization] family,” and a slew of other familial slogans are plastered throughout many modern organizations’ websites, emails, and mission statements, introducing an added dimension to the idea of workplace vulnerability.

According to Joshua Luna in The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a Family, “Adding a ‘family’ culture and sense of belonging might not sound malicious at first, but when used to foster relationships with the expectations of top-level performance employees are rarely set up for success … If you’re promoting a family culture, does that make the employer the parents and the employees the children?”

The infantilization of teachers is notoriously known in education communities. The second almost-en-masse-firing was when a group of adult teachers were “caught” one evening with a bottle of wine. The same non-POC program director then called for their termination (after first making them phone their own program mommy on a Saturday night and confess what they’d done.) 

Strong bonds between members of a cohort that claims to uplift underserved communities or otherwise promotes a culture of belonging are essential. But if a space hasn’t put equal effort into unpacking what requiring emotional labor means for the nature of interactions between workers and the values embodied by the institution as a whole, what is the result?

Perhaps the formerly described “workplaces of life” should be the aim, potentially adding Ella Baker’s non-hierarchical approach to leadership. “Participatory democracy, which rejects top-down, hierarch[y] … uplifts voices that have been deliberately placed in the margins and seeks to organize, strategize, and mobilize through consensus building.”

Regardless, vulnerability in some capacity is necessary, so all the more relevant are cultural responsiveness and accountability, as well as rethinking our understanding of what it means to be professional.

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