May 21, 2014

Jill Abramson and the lessons of “Emotional labor”

Jill Abramson
Like most journalism junkies, I’ve devoured pretty much every scrap of news and gossip I could get my hands on regarding Jill Abramson’s firing as executive editor of the New York Times. For a longtime reporter and a longtime lover of the Times, it’s been palace intrigue at its bloodiest, and therefore most riveting. 

It so happened that even as the Times fiasco unfolded, I’d been in the midst of studying a subject that’s fascinated me of late: “emotional labor.” The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term, and her 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling helped spur a raft of research concerning the influence of feelings in the workplace. Seeing the events of the past week through the prism of that research has been enlightening.

The term “emotional labor” refers to the effort it takes for employees in certain situations not to respond to the emotions their jobs cause them to feel, or to respond “appropriately,” i.e., in ways that won’t damage the bottom line of the businesses they work for. The field focuses largely on workers who interact with the public—airline stewardesses and customer service representatives, for example—but there’s also a fair amount of attention paid to internal relationships between employees and bosses. In both cases the hypothesis is that emotional labor is a form of stress that can be detrimental to workers’ health.

The customer is always right
Emotional labor has been defined as "the effort, planning, and control needed to express organizationally-desired emotion during interpersonal transactions." This controlled emotional expression is a form of acting that is said to fall into one of two basic categories: Surface acting, wherein the outer expressions of inner feelings are controlled, and deep acting, wherein the person seeks to actually modify emotions that arise. 

The need to manage emotional expectations and reactions, and the consequences of failing to manage them, played a crucial role in Jill Abramson’s downfall. I’ll review here the most important reasons why that is so. My sources are two expansive articles on emotion work, one by Hochschild in the American Journal of Sociology, the other by Alicia Grandey in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.*

It’s important, first of all, to note the emotional context in which the reactions of the key figures in the Times drama played out. At least three distinct pairs of identity agendas were involved:

  • Feminist management values vs. traditional (largely male) management values
  • Shoe-leather journalism values vs. (inherited) management journalism values
  • Old school, traditional print journalism values vs. new school digital journalism values
It’s less clear in the reporting of the Abramson imbroglio how a fourth pair of social values fit into the mix, but it has to be assumed that in some way they did. I refer to the black versus white values associated with the fact that one of the central figures, managing editor Dean Baquet, is black. Given the volatile sensitivities surrounding anything having to do with race, whatever part Baquet’s color played—specifically, how his color might have affected Baquet’s own emotional makeup and consequent reactions and behaviors—has been, from what I’ve seen, avoided, as it probably should have been. Nonetheless it would be na├»ve to believe race played no role whatsoever.

Dean Baquet
Despite that omission, no shortage of information has emerged describing the basic events that transpired, much of it demonstrating that various manifestations of emotional management and mismanagement had everything to do with the entire unfortunate episode.

In social situations we all react according to what Hochschild calls “a latent set of rules” dictated by the values of the groups to which we belong or would like to belong. These rules define what “conventions of feeling” are deemed appropriate in given situations, and these in turn define what types of emotional display are expected and “owed.” 

These emotional displays are often contrived, and deceptive. “Emotional labor may involve enhancing, faking, or suppressing emotions to modify the emotional expression,” Grandey says. For airline stewardesses and customer service representatives, “display rules” adhere to the principle that the customer is always right. Expectations within organizations can be more ambiguous, leading more easily to misinterpretation, offense and eventual conflict. This is especially true when the behaviors stem from different sets of values in which different “feeling rules” apply. As Hochschild puts it, “Feeling rules differ curiously from other types of rules in that they do not apply to action but to what is often taken as a precursor to action. Therefore they tend to be latent and resistant to formal codification.”

Figuring out the feeling rules becomes infinitely more confusing during periods of dramatic social and professional change. Explains Hochschild, “Part of what we refer to as the psychological effects of ‘rapid social change,’ or ‘unrest’ is a change in the relation of feeling rule to feeling and a lack of clarity about what the rule actually is, owing to conflicts and contradictions between contending sets of rules. Feelings and frames are deconventionalized, but not yet reconventionalized.” 

Like other rules, Hochschild adds, feeling rules can be halfheartedly obeyed or boldly broken. The penalty one risks for either action varies, but termination is among the possibilities. 

Jill Abramson’s role as the Times’ first female executive editor was a classic example of deconventionalized feelings and frames. The frantic pressure to adjust to the demands of the digital revolution poured more complexity into the emotional mix. “As some ideologies gain acceptance and others dwindle,” Hochschild says, “contending sets of feeling rules rise and fall.”

Whether we’re interacting with an irate customer or a demanding boss, we’ve all felt it necessary in work situations to act differently than we feel, or, put another way, not to act the way we feel. It’s considered a mark of maturity as well as employability to “manage” our emotions. The movie Office Space portrays, in the waitress character played by Jennifer Aniston, an employee who struggles with this problem. Repeatedly reprimanded by her boss for failing to display enough enthusiasm for her work—enthusiasm symbolized by the number of pieces of “flair” she’s willing to put on her uniform—she finally quits. This is an outcome frequently predicted and observed by emotional labor researchers. 
Office Space
Absurd as it may sound, Abramson’s troubles at the Times bear some resemblance to the troubles of Anniston’s character in Office Space. Certainly Abramson failed to fulfill the emotional expectations of her boss, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.. Like Aniston’s character, she basically lost her job because she was unwilling to engage in the types of emotional display required of team players. Whose fault that was obviously depends on who you talk to. Either Abramson was a bad manager, a bitch, or both, or she was inaccurately labeled as such, mainly because she was a woman who refused to conform to sexist stereotypes. Regardless of which is true, or more true, expectations based on conventions of feeling paved the way for Abramson’s departure. 

Abramson is clearly a dedicated feminist who takes her values, her integrity and her journalism very seriously, as the tattoo of the Times "T” logo on her back suggests. The idea of offering, in her role as executive editor, the sorts of emotional reassurances and comforts that women have traditionally been expected to provide would probably have struck her as emotionally dishonest. She didn’t get where she was by playing the nice girl and I suspect she had no interest in adopting that role once she’d risen to the top. To do so would have been a betrayal of her basic values. It was a different story when it came to supporting other women in the newsroom, which by all accounts Abramson did openly and enthusiastically.  

The Times logo
Writes Hochschild, “Rules for managing feeling are implicit in any ideological stance; they are the ‘bottom side’ of ideology.” Refusing to conform to the feeling rules defined for a certain role suggests “an ideology lapsed or rejected.”
Abramson’s professional history as a hard-hitting investigative reporter provided another set of values that would have made her reluctant to play nice with Sulzberger and his new CEO, Mark Thompson. Janet Malcom famously pointed out that reporters routinely hide their true feelings when they’re trying to win the confidence of their sources. In most other situations, however, they like to think of themselves as truth tellers. (I say this as someone who worked for more than a decade as an investigative reporter.) Honesty rates much higher on the value scale than making things look good. That’s why Abramson refused to go along with Sulzberger’s offer to construct a face-saving explanation of her departure for public consumption. Fuck that, I’m sure she said, to herself if not directly to Sulzberger. I’m not going to lie just to make this easier for you.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

(Ron Howard’s 1994 movie The Paper offers a fine portrait of the dynamic I’m talking about here, with Michael Keaton playing the Abramson role and Spalding Gray playing the Sulzberger role.) 

What of Dean Baquet’s role in the affair? For whatever reasons he seems constitutionally to be more attentive to feeling rules than Abramson. He hadn’t been told, for example, that Abramson planned to hire the Guardian’s Janine Gibson to be Baquet’s co-managing editor. Baquet kept his feelings to himself when he learned of this over lunch with Gibson, but he reportedly expressed his dismay in no uncertain terms during a dinner with Sulzberger two days later, apparently suggesting or stating outright that he would resign rather than continue working with Abramson. 
In the wake of an earlier disagreement, Baquet had walked out of Abramson’s office and slammed his fist into a wall—an uncharacteristic loss of emotional control for which he subsequently apologized, publicly. "The newsroom doesn't need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum,” he told Politico. While managing editor of the Los Angeles Times during a period when management was imposing repeated rounds of editorial cutbacks, Baquet eventually decided he'd had enough and dramatically resigned. Some who worked there at the time, however, have noted that up to that point Banquet had handled the bloodletting with notable composure. “He was a grownup about it,” one colleague told the Washington Post. “He was not the kind to go pout.”

These characteristics suggest that Baquet fits Alicia Grandey’s description of a “high self-monitoring” individual, while Abramson may be the opposite. “High self-monitors,” Grandey writes, “are more aware of the emotional cues of others and are more willing and able to change their own emotional expression to fit the situation than low self-monitors. Low self-monitors tend to remain ‘true’ to their internal feelings.”

Photo posted on Instagram by Abramson's daughter, post-firing

It isn’t likely, then, that Baquet, a lover of fine clothes, fine art, fine cars and fine cigars, will demonstrate his loyalty to the Times by having its logo tattooed on his back. Nor is a picture of him wearing a t-shirt and boxing gloves likely to appear on Instagram. There doesn’t seem to be any question that the emotional content of Baquet’s management style will contrast sharply with Abramson’s. He’s known as a cheerleader, one who can be counted on to actively and generously offer feeling support. As Dylan Byers of Politico put it, “He cares about newsroom morale and he cares about being liked.”
I mentioned above that we typically feel we have a “right” to expect certain types of emotional response from those we encounter, depending on how we perceive ourselves in relation to them, just as we feel we “owe” certain types of emotional response to others. Sulzberger, in one of his post-firing statements, complained that Abramson didn’t offer the sorts of feeling displays that he and others on the Times masthead deserved. "During her tenure,” he said, “I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues."

Again, whether Sulzberger’s version is the correct version depends on who you talk to. For him, an appropriate manifestation of feeling display presumably would have included a healthy measure of deference. Failing to adequately satisfy that expectation may have been one of Abramson’s mistakes, but it’s hard to know that for sure. Aside from her suspicions that she hadn’t been receiving pay commensurate with that of her male predecessors, the day-to-day quality of Abramson’s working relationship with Sulzberger is another point that hasn’t received much attention in the press. It’s clear in any case that a more emotionally acceptable candidate for the job—Dean Banquet—was waiting in the wings. 

No doubt the sympathies among those remaining at the Times are divided, and no doubt the trauma of the affair has left a trove of unsettled emotions that will take time to sort out. As Grandey puts it, “An emotional event may lead to more emotional regulation when that event results in emotions that are discrepant from the organizational display rules." 

In other words, for the time being you can expect that a lot of folks at the Times will be keeping their heads down.

*Hochschild, “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Nov., 1979), p. 551-575; Grandey, “Emotion Regulation in the Workplace: A New Way to Conceptualize Emotional Labor.” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 5., No. 1 (2000), p. 95-110.

©Doug Hill, 2014 

May 1, 2014

A Faustian Age

We are a Faustian age, determined to meet the Lord or the Devil before we are done.
 Norman Mailer