Alain de Botton: "We're all lovably demented and that's fine"

Written by
Karam Filfilan

19 Mar 2018

19 Mar 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

Emotional intelligence matters

Business leaders – who are still extremely focused on hard skills – do not appreciate that the emotional side of life costs a lot of money when it goes wrong. We’re strange robots that misfire in particular emotional areas and not enough allowance is made for this.

As low-level tasks are taken over by machines, most work is now dependent on a sound emotional frame of mind which wasn’t the case in the days of hard physical labour. Nowadays, the emotional and temperamental mood is of high economic importance.

If you want to make money, you’re going to have to be interested in making people feel better.

Recognise the issues in your office

We all gossip about co-workers, which is a way of latching onto what is emotionally wrong with them: “he’s arrogant”; “she’s so defensive”, and so on. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it shows we’re noticing that colleagues are difficult to be around in emotional ways. We’re not saying they are bad at their jobs, we’re alluding to a problem they’re causing in the workplace because of emotional issues.

We don’t think there is anything we can do about it, so we grind along with it for decades. It’s a source of huge trouble.

Lading from the front

It’s no surprise that businesses have shied away from addressing this. It’s hard to tell a colleague that the defensive way they handle feedback is driving you mad. It’s also a very modern problem, where labour is expensive and has to be looked after carefully. Blanket professionalism, like the idea of a stiff upper lip, won’t provide the answer.

It’s possible to change culture quite quickly, as culture is just about saying “we’re committed to a process of making the workplace less noxious”. It doesn’t mean everybody is going to be lovely from day one, you’re simply signalling a commitment to changing.

To develop an emotionally mature workplace, leaders often think they have to be ‘nicer’. That's the wrong approach. It’s more about how you talk internally, moving away from over-optimistic and emotionally blank language to inviting everyone to share in their own vulnerabilities honestly.

Be aware that asking someone to change is worrying, because all change is associated with attack. In relationships, people will say “why don’t you love me as I am?”. That’s an unhelpful starting point and it’s important for office cultures to have a mood of everyone trying to improve.

Learning and growing

A great interview question to ask is “in what ways are you hard to work with?”. It’s so informative because we want recruits who have a handle on the way in which they are emotionally imperfect.

Someone who is able to identify and work on an issue they have suggests they are able to learn and grow, both professionally and emotionally.

Journey to maturity

Alongside money, skills and friendship, office life can teach you emotional maturity. Few people think “I’ve been working here for five years and I’ve become more emotionally mature”, but work, at its best, can do this. For example, you might learn to take feedback, which is valuable at work and in your relationships. Imagine what it would mean to get beyond sulking or the gloomy cynicism that guards us against trying things.

Search for the hero inside yourself

Humans are always looking for signs that we’re normal. That feeling of “what’s wrong with me?” is everyone’s reality, but we are all wearing a mask.

Remember that the version of themselves most people show is edited, but internally, you can’t edit yourself. So, you’re not as strange as you think. We’re all lovably demented and that’s fine.