What is Emotional Infrastructure?

emotional infrastructure

What is Emotional Infrastructure?

What is Emotional Infrastructure? Historically, organizations were either small, tight-knit communities or they were larger amalgams of communities more or less designed to achieve an organization’s goals. Although organizations may be divided into functions or lines of business, the association of employment and brand offered common ground. Even in the most dysfunctional organizations, there was little doubt that the collective well-being of the enterprise fell to management and to the employees, often co-creating the unique edifice that came to be known as company culture.

In my Enterprise 2.0, Santa Clara keynote I said this unified view of the organization had already been disrupted, and that the lack of engagement and dissatisfaction with the workplace that so defines our current moment could be attributed to the disregard for emotional infrastructure.

If you have ever been outsourced, or known someone who has been, you know that the relationship changes immediately and irrevocably. When the employment relationship shifts, so too do the shared and common view of the organization. Even if the outsourced employees return to the same building and the same desks, they are no longer privy to all the information, no longer participants in incentive programs or morale events. They may still churn through gossip in lunchrooms, through email or social media, but there is an emotional distance, a disconnection.

I believe this lack of regard for emotional infrastructure directly impacts performance. It is an unintended but very real result of Michael Porter’s core competencies. When we say something is no longer a core competency, not only do we say the work is better done by others with a focus on that work, but we say that the people who do that work are now somehow others as well.

When I was in Vienna for the European Facilities Management Conference it became clear that the outsourcers were starting to worry about this issue. They could see in their employees a confusion between the employment relationship with the outsourcer, and the working relationship, which counted for the majority of their time, at their place of assignment. Where did their emotional attachment lie, their support network?

Another organizational issue arises from cycles of activities, like the review cycle. In these circumstances, people working together do not share the same stress activator. For the outsourced group at a company, they may experience higher than normal frustration because their counterparts are going through the review cycle. Sponsors stress over future careers while the contractors stress about near-term performance because they can’t adequately engage their distracted sponsors.

The question then Is: who owns emotional infrastructure? Is it part of contract negotiations, a shared responsibility? Does just spelling it out in a legal document solve the problem? Should all people contracts move from functions to HR?

I think the answer is we don’t know. Organizations seeking efficiency treat their people as exchangeable cogs, and even if compassion reigns at the moment of departure, the result is a break in social contracts and a redefinition of social relationships that aren’t addressed as part of the outsourcing process. If organizations want to be more functional, if they want to create high performing teams, then they need to move away from an employee-centric view and think about the larger emotional infrastructure that envelops their employees, contractors, and partners. People are emotional beings, and if we disregard that aspect of our worker’s nature, we create ever more dispassionate organizations that disenfranchise, rather than engage, by design.

For more on emotional infrastructure from Serious Insights read: HOW CLINGING TO CORE COMPETENCIES IS BREAKING YOUR ORGANIZATION’S HEART.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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