Thankless Emotional Labour as Management Training

My first month as a manager I barely had time to think about how I didn’t really know what I was doing, because there was so much that clearly needed to be done. So I accepted that stuff was not writing code, and got on with it.

Month two opened, and I kept getting on with things, and I saw activities from Month 1 starting to pay off. I paused and asked myself: “why does it seem like I know what I’m doing?” and the answer I had for myself was… “Oh. Management is Thankless Emotional Labour”.

Except… my job isn’t thankless anymore. What I do is valued. It’s also strategic – in terms of how we execute as a team, and what we build. Writing – and doing – “Emotional Labour” without the thankless prefix is something I need to adjust to.

So, three ways in which management is like “thankless emotional labour”: 1) work for the collective, 2) being an emotional thermometer, 3) technical work becomes mentoring and grunt work.

1. Work for the Collective

Work for the collective is stuff that benefits the “team” not the individual. It’s one of those things that women tend to be dinged for not doing, rather than appreciated when they do [see: Women Don’t Ask – Amazon].

Hiring is a good example. In the last 3 months I’ve worked on designing a hiring process, done countless phone screens, coached engineers on interviewing (we open sourced our prep guide!) etc. I actively worked on finding underrepresented people in tech, including offering anyone underrepresented in tech working on mobile a call about anything they wanted in February (my boss offered his time too, which was super kind). I met some great people this way and hope I was able to be helpful.

The result: one of the engineers on my team observed that hiring a new engineer had seemed painless. As I looked at him, remembering the day I did six interviews in one day, he followed up with “or maybe you just made it seem that way.”

I did. Because that’s my job, now.

2. Emotional Thermometer

Many women I know spend a lot of time thinking about and worrying about the emotions of the men around them. We’re conditioned to do it, men have come to expect it, and at darker moments it’s a way that we manage risk. It’s best captured by that quote from Margaret Atwood, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

At The Conglomerate, we did this personality test involving colors, and you have a primary and a secondary. Green: over-think (and engineer) things. Yellow: organize things. Orange: ship things. Blue: emote.

I like to describe blue as “baseline human decency” but another good description is “emotional thermometer”. It’s about only being as happy as the people around you are.

Most people at The Conglomerate are green or orange. I’m yellow with orange undertones. Which is fine, I know I value an organized way of getting things done. What I didn’t know was how weird that was. As a result, what I got most out of this exercise was a new understanding of how people judge or assume other people’s colors. People seemed to see organization, process, as a distraction rather than an enabler. When I listened to how people saw blue I was reminded of a weird and conversation I’d had with a manager I’d had, that had made me feel deeply uncomfortable. And I realised, he thought I was blue.

One of my friends observed that it’s probably pretty common for women to be assumed to be blue. To be assumed that their first priority is everyone else’s feelings rather than what they personally value. We often force women to do an impression of that, with a feedback loop where the consequences of not doing that are unpredictable but potentially extreme.

But as a manager, being tuned into the emotional temperature of your team is a strength. If you discover someone’s unhappy because you noticed something was up, and gave them space to tell you, you have better, more immediate information than if you wait for the point where they seek you out.

As much as I deeply, deeply resent “prove it again” on technical matters I’m willing to prove to my team week in week out that I’m worth trusting. It seems to me that a manager is only as good as their worst screw up. Paying attention to how they feel doesn’t seem like a bad place to start.

3. Technical Work Becomes Mentoring and Grunt work.

As things have calmed down, I have been able to carve out some time to do some technical work. This falls into the categories of mentoring, and grunt work.

Mentoring: helping someone else do their technical work. Helping understand and implement a pattern we’re adopting to improve our testing, or giving feedback in code review. The easiest way for one of my team to make my day is to ask me a technical question. Even if it’s something like “how do I fix this test?”

Grunt work: something needs to be done, but not immediately, and it’s not very interesting. Infrastructure stuff, clean up, (small) refactorings.

Both of these things are often unappreciated when done by engineers, especially women, because of the way work done by women is always devalued. Mentoring because of the same reasons as work for the collective, grunt work because it’s “not important” or “lacks impact”.

Actually, the most useful thing that I’ve built when I’ve spent time on technical stuff is not lines of code – it’s understanding of the processes followed on the team.

4. Thankless Emotional Labour Bootcamp

You can learn how to run a functional 1:1. You can learn how to perform empathy. You can learn how to demonstrate listening. But actually tuning into all these things is far less easy to define. Luckily for me (and my team), I spent most of my time in industry being forced to.

Before I had the realisation that management was emotional labour, after a day of doing it, I would message one of my friends and say “this is what I did today, how do I know if it’s enough?” I felt I had not created anything of value. As I approach the end of Month 3, I don’t feel like that any more. Partly because I have seen stuff start to pay off, but also because I have accepted that is what the job is.

This realisation, by the way, also explained why women move / get pushed into management. It was one of those things that I intellectually knew, but now… feel like I understand.

But the question I leave you with – if this stuff is valuable when done by managers, why isn’t it valuable when done by engineers?

I think it is valuable, but I also think that more of this stuff falls on engineers when managers aren’t doing it themselves. As a manager what you do, and what you reward, communicates what you value. So if you don’t do this stuff, or you do it badly, it’s very clear to your team that this is not valued, so when others do it, even when they benefit from it, they are unlikely to value it either.

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Cate Huston

Cate Huston has spent her career working on mobile technology and documenting everything she learns using WordPress. Now she combines the two as Automattic’s mobile lead. She co-curates Technically Speaking and admins the New-(ish) Manager Slack. You can find her on Twitter at @catehstn and at accidentlyincode.com.

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