Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 25, 2010 3:09 PM
Visitors touring the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas are greeted noisily. Staffers blow horns and ring cowbells to bid them welcome.
This sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. Call me a grinch. Call me a humorless, life-hating, stick in the mud, but commandeering personal emotions in the interest of forced conviviality seems to me wrong. I believe emotions are mostly a private matter and should not be controlled by the corporation.
Mind you, I don't go so far as to say that any emotion volunteered on the job is a violation of personal autonomy. (Arlie Russell Hochschild flirts with this position in his book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.) I am quite happy to make myself agreeable on the job. Good humor is a solvent. Cheerfulness is extraordinary added value.
But clearly there are moments when the corporation goes too far. Comedians have long made fun of the airline staff member who wishes everyone farewell with real feeling, in very quick succession. Can sincerity be serial, we wonder?
Movies now take pot shots at companies that extract emotion from their employees. Office Space makes sport of the badges (or "flair") certain restaurant employees are obliged to wear. Jennifer Aniston's character wears 15 badges but she is told that this is the "minimum" she needs to "express herself." As the manager patiently explains, "People can get a cheeseburger anywhere. They come to Chockees for the atmosphere and the attitude." This sort of thing is routinely excoriated in popular culture. Witness The Office (British and American versions), the comedies of Judd Apatow, the comedic work of Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live) and Tina Fey (30 Rock) and much of the culture produced by people under 40.
Our culture cares increasingly about authenticity. Indeed, thanks to the work of Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authenticity has become a watchword in the world of marketing. In this new cultural convention, being really excited all the time is patently inauthentic, not least because we know that peak moments of emotion are by their nature occasional. So when we ask our staff to roll out the bonhomie, some employees now believe they are being asked to be inauthentic.
But there is a deeper problem. When we commandeer the emotional lives of our employees we waste a valuable resource. Left to their own devices, employees represent a wonderful variety of attitudes, interests and activities. They are in fact a very good opportunity for the corporation to survey what is happening "out there" in the world. When we ask them to be outward facing ambassadors for the corporation, we flatten their naturally occurring variety, making it much more difficult for them to serve as inward facing ambassadors for the world.
To navigate the turbulent waters of contemporary markets, the corporation needs to use every resource at its disposal. Forced fun may make the corporation more agreeable, but it also makes it less well-informed and less responsive.