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The Fine Art of Emotional Detachment

Why Indifference is as Important as Passion

One of the methods I propose in The No Asshole Rule for people who are trapped in nasty workplaces, and can't escape at least for now, is to learn the fine art of emotional detachment -- so the poision around you does not ruin or infect your soul. This suggestion generated a lot of comments when I first started blogging about it. In particular, Ann Michael over at manage to change had some great ideas about why "Indifference is as important as passion." Ann suggested:

"Passion can make you too close to something. We all need to be able to step back and disconnect. In order to see flaws in the plan, respect the input of others, and maintain an open mind, a little indifference can go a long way. One other thing, too many disrespectful actions are explained away by passion. It’s as if passion can be the get-out-of-being-called-a-jerk-free card. Passion is NOT a license to steam roll everyone in your path!"

I think Ann's ideas are wonderful. Here are my original two reasons, but some of you likely have other reasons as well.

The first reason stems from human cognitive limits. As we all know, and as modern psychology has shown in gory detail, human beings can do a limited number of things at once, and even the best "multi-taskers" in the world are doomed to fail if they try to do too many things at once. So if you try to put all your emotional and physical effort into everything you do, you will end do everything badly. Indifference is a key survival skill as there are some things you may need to do, but are so unimportant that not caring as you travel through them is the best answer. And indifference can also help you sidestep things that seem important, but really aren't, allowing you to focus on the few things that really matter.

I talk a lot about the second reason in The No Asshole Rule. A hallmark of strong organizational cultures and effective work teams -- and effective leaders and other organization members -- is that they devote great passion and great emotional energy to what they do. A people in such places really CARE about the people around them. Passion is a wonderful if your organization and your colleagues care about you. BUT it is recipe for self-destruction if you are trapped in a job with a demeaning boss, or worse yet, knee-deep in an 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. In my view, when organizations and bosses treat their people badly, they get what they deserve when their people respond by becoming emotionally detached and doing as little as possible without getting fired. In this imperfect world, there are times when learning "not to give a shit" is the best short-term solution available.

Also, to return to Ann's point, I agree that people who are too passionate about what they are doing run the risk of becoming assholes who steam-roll others (I love her point that passion can give them a "get-out-of-being-a-jerk-free card"). Ann's point reminded me of David Maister's insightful list of "I've been an asshole when," seven points that he started with "I got overexcited and over enthused on a topic (I lose my sense of proportion, just keep trying to make my point and don’t let people finish their sentences)." I plead guilty: when I think of the times when I've been a temporary asshole, it has often been when I am "overexcited and over enthused" as David put it. One solution is to find a way -- or have someone else help you -- to turn down your passion and turn up your indifference. (The rest of his list is fantastic, they all struck home with me.)

In closing, let me emphasize that, on average, it is likely wiser to err on the side of caring too much rather than caring too little. Passion leads people to do great things and to travel through life caring about their work and each other -- it often makes the world a better place. But indifference is worth talking about because it is something that management and workplace writers rarely consider.

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