Organizational psychologist Robert Sutton advises on his blog “Work Matters” (hosted by Psychology Today) that “for people who are trapped in nasty workplaces, and can’t escape at least for now,” one useful coping mechanism “is to learn the fine art of emotional detachment — so the poision (sic) around you does not ruin or infect your soul.” Sutton, who draws on his popular book The No Asshole Rule (2007), further explains:
Passion is . . . wonderful if your organization and your colleagues care about you. BUT it is [a] recipe for self-destruction if you are trapped in a job with a demeaning boss, or worse yet, knee-deep in [a] workplace where asshole poisoning runs rampant. If you face constant abuse, then (until you can get out) going through the motions and “not letting it touch your soul” is one tactic that can help you survive with your self-esteem intact.
Exit vs. Voice?
Sutton’s commentary bears some connection to insights from Albert O. Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970). Here’s my very oversimplified nutshell: Hirschman suggested that when an organization’s actions trigger objections from one of its members (such as an employee or customer), the individual may choose to either exit (i.e., some type of withdrawal) or voice concern (via a complaint or grievance). The choice of response may be influenced by the degree of loyalty that individual feels toward the organization, with the latter indicating anticipation of an active, continuing relationship.
As Sutton and Hirschman might concur, the exit option in a work situation can include emotional detachment or withdrawal. For example, organizations rife with workplace bullying can experience reduced employee loyalty and productivity, in addition to the predictable effect of higher attrition. Obviously this means that more workers have “checked out” in the face of an abusive work environment.
Emotional detachment may be related to the concept of presenteeism, which EHS Today defines as “the phenomenon where employees show up for work but don’t perform at full capacity.” Although presenteeism is often discussed in the context of employees showing up for work sick due to lack of paid sick leave, it also relates to how bad workplace conditions negatively influence engagement and productivity.
There’s a big difference between giving a job a fuller effort vs. doing enough to escape criticism. Emotional detachment nudges even the best of workers toward the latter.
When jobs are scarce
Emotional detachment may be a more prevalent choice during a difficult economy when employment options are more limited. It galls me when those who oppose workplace bullying legislation base their objection in part on the assumption that a target of abuse has the easy option of picking up and going to another job. There are myriad reasons, some quite rational, why someone might remain in a less-than-wonderful employment setting. At a time when the job market is tight, keeping a roof over one’s head and food on the table might be among them.
Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers. Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.
In sum, emotional detachment may be an effective coping mechanism for a hostile work setting, but for many it is a sad response to a bad situation, nothing more.
This post was revised in July 2016.