Bullish: How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings

All progress takes place outside the comfort

Recently, a colleague of mine — a 24 year old woman in the market for a new assistant — told me that her previous assistants had complained that she never said thank you. “I hate saying thank you to people just for doing their jobs! Why should I have to thank them?”

(Note that, on Mad Men – Season 4, “The Suitcase” – Peggy Olson similarly complained “You never say thank you,” leading Don Draper to thunder, “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!”)

I couldn’t help but laugh. Saying thank you doesn’t cost me anything. I can literally say thank you all day long. I mean, really, the number of times I am physically able to say thank you in an eight-hour workday is several thousand. The number of times I can say thank you without using up the linguistic space I need in order to be able to say other words is at least a couple dozen. And if you have the option of compensating someone in spoken gratitude or in actual additional money, then there’s a solid financial case for even the most cantankerous bitch in the world to suck it up and thank people for performing the job functions they are already being paid to do.

I wrote in How to Remain Blissfully Unfrustrated in the Face of Other People’s Incompetence that “fake niceness goes a long way, even when everyone knows it’s fake.” (“A fake smile is just fine; it shows that you are committed to making the other person’s job easy. People like that. Fake niceness is the lubricant of unpleasant tasks.”) I’m in favor. But there’s a larger principle at play: some people are willing to be compensated in feelings, and some aren’t. Feelings are a currency. You want to win at Emotional Currency Arbitrage.

Here’s what I mean. There are a bunch of Four-Hour Workweek devotees running around countries with weak currencies right now, bragging about getting paid in American dollars and living in Argentine pesos or Vietnamese dong. Sure, if you can bill at $60 an hour, U.S., while working online, and live in an $18 a night hotel that magically has WiFi while also receiving $5/hour lessons in Spanish/capoeira/machete fighting, then you are queen of the lifestyle arbitrage world (although, sadly, your clever Western money-magic will not protect you from food poisoning, and as a person who has had her hair held by a kind French tourist and his boyfriend as she puked on an Argentine coffee shop bathroom floor, I can tell you that this is not traveling like a gentlewoman).

So, winning at lifestyle arbitrage means making money in a more powerful currency than the one in which you are spending. (Please, Four-Hour Workweek devotees, do not make your $5 an hour virtual assistant in Bangalore book your gynecologist appointments. Thank you). To win at Emotional Currency Arbitrage, you want to pay others in feelings (when that’s what they would like — don’t abuse this power), but not be duped, yourself, into being paid in feelings.


A recent report that’s been making the rounds says that young people today crave self-esteem boosts “more than sex, drinking, money, or food.” Insert a bunch of rhetoric here about Millennials and their overbearing helicopter parents.

I hope you’re not one of these people. If so, you are only going to be disappointed and taken advantage of; those who need praise are highly dependent on praise-givers. Praise junkies are in the world’s worst negotiating position. Praise cannot be converted into any other form of currency; it’s like being compensated in beautiful bouquets of flowers that wilt after four days, no matter how much flower food you dump into the vase, hoping to get just one more hit from the cheap carnation of other people’s approval before you reluctantly toss the whole thing in the trash.

I find that there are many other feelings that come, unnecessarily, into play in workplace environments. When coworkers spend more time with each other than with their own friends or families (or, alone, actually doing work, as is my preference), unhealthy attachments develop. People support stupid projects because those projects are important to their work friends. They prioritize wrong, trying to please the person physically closest to them and with whom they are therefore most likely to discuss their work. They want something impressive to share at a meeting in which they are too emotionally invested, much the same way that everyone wants a cool story to tell in the middle school lunchroom.

It’s possible to turn off these emotions, in part by excusing yourself from an office environment, or at least a lot of the play-acting that goes along with office social life (last week: How to Get Out of Meetings, Permanently). Not all emotions are bad, of course. Certainly you want to be thought a genial coworker with good interpersonal skills; you do not, however, want to be part of something that feels like high school, or a cult.

Years ago, I worked for a large test prep company that is now not doing so well. This company would regularly charge parents upwards of $150 an hour for tutoring, and pay the tutor $25 an hour. (Also, for the record, I think that any company that requires noncompetes of employees it pays less than $15,000 a year deserves damnation, utter damnation.) And then — and this is endemic in any industry that works with children, animals, sick people, etc. — it would attempt to exploit its employees by compensating them in feelings rather than money.

In these situations, I have always been known as “the one who’s willing to say something.” (Similarly, in college, I lived in a co-ed fraternity house, and I was known as “the one who’s willing to confront that guy who isn’t showering.”) Many people fear speaking up about exploitation because they think there will be repercussions — well, to my knowledge, I’ve never suffered from such repercussions. In fact, as I wrote in Is It Better to Rule Through Love or Fear?, I have, over the years, inspired mild trepidation among some people I’ve worked with, and this has worked just fine. I think mild fear is an excellent compensatory strategy for small people.


In any case, this company would say “We need everyone to do this two-hour, unpaid errand/training in order to be staffed for this upcoming gig.”

And I would say, on behalf of everyone, in my best direct-but-diplomatic wording: “I don’t think it’s financially feasible for most of us to do two hours of unpaid work in order to do a three-hour job later, especially adding in commuting time for both activities.”

And the response would be something like, “But think of THE CHILDREN!”

This is infinitely worse than “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!”, at least when it’s coming from a for-profit company and all the children involved live in a neighborhood that begins with “Upper” and ends with “Side” and are not deprived in any way, except inasmuch as having too much Fendi as a child can really distract from divining the theme of My Antonia.

How about I start a catsitting service where I charge rich people $100 a day to have their cats fed a macrobiotic diet, taught Jivamukti yoga, and lovingly brushed with brushes made of the hollowed-out skeletons of middle-class cats, and then I hire cat sitters for $11 an hour and suggest that the cat-sitters need to obtain their own Jivamukti yoga certifications as well as tiny cat yoga mats infused with organic catnip, and then when the catsitters complain that they can’t pay their rent, I send them emails with JPGS of adorable kittens looking forlorn, with the caption “WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?”

It’s very helpful to be able to turn off your feelings here. If it’s the case that someone “really needs you!” and that person is a paying client (or the child/cat of one), that’s an excellent reason for you to get paid more money, not less.

So, here are a few action points for winning at Emotional Currency Arbitrage.

– If people want emotional “payment” for their labor, give it to them. Expand your own capacity to give it to them. Make a point of sending one totally unsolicited thank-you email (not a thank-you in an existing email chain — a totally fresh email that says “thank you” in the subject line, with an explanation of the thank you in the email itself), or a “Wow, great job!” email with other people cc’d on it, every day after lunch. Even people who do not have an unhealthy dependency on praise still like compliments and gratitude, of course.

– If you are unemployed, underemployed, have no apparent marketable skills, etc., you actually still have an unlimited resource: the ability to make people feel good about themselves. Just as blind people are able to hear better (for years this was thought to be a myth, but research shows that it’s true — blind people can take over parts of the brain typically used for processing visual information and repurpose this brain space for auditory processing), people who have a little dead space in their careers have the time and motivation to work on becoming the sort of person that other people like to work around and are, in some cases, actually addicted to working around. Even if you are a recent college graduate who has never had a job, it’s pretty easy to find some important people in your chosen field (most authors are very easy to contact online), send them intelligent compliments, and figure out a way to offer to get involved in something. Young people often vastly underestimate how much successful older people get out of being looked up to.

– On the other hand, if you find that you are being emotionally manipulated by your superiors, or that you are pursuing self-esteem boosts more than you are pursuing money, advancement, or real goals, one good antidote is to keep a current resume at all times, and tweak it about every two weeks. Then, whenever you prioritize your work activities, you’ll be able to think: am I doing this to achieve something real, or because of some crappy office social club? Always remember that there is a Platonic form that is “your career” that exists separately from “your job” or your current slate of clients. Do not get caught in Plato’s Cave; your real career is outside the cave, and the emotional manipulation and stroking that come your way are mere shadows flickering on the wall of that cave.

– Even better than a resume, create a work “portfolio,” especially if you are young and have only one real job on your resume. Give every project, initiative, marketing campaign, etc., that you work on its own page or Powerpoint slide in this portfolio. A resume with one job on it makes you look like someone a new employer doesn’t have to pay that much. A woman with twenty pages of easy-to-browse documentation of twenty projects she worked on in that job is a force to be reckoned with. Quantify everything. I once worked in a marketing job that was depressing in that it was very difficult to ever see whether anything had any effect. If I had to do it again, I’d have been much more involved in metrics — I’d have made sure I was able to show that the e-mail newsletters under my watch had an x% higher open rate than before I came on board, for instance. (I wrote in Five Ways to Improve Your Life With Math about calculating your monetary value to your company).

If you quantify your successes, a boss’s “ungrateful” attitude really stops mattering. Some bosses are perfectly happy with you, never say a word about it, and just give you money. Sometimes, it is the fairly unemotional attitude of these people that has allowed them to become bosses in the first place. You can trade money for a lot more different kinds of things than you can feelings. You get to choose your preferred currency.

originally published on The Gloss


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