A professional work environment

Inspired by our class discussion on the 29th of January, and the TV series Lie to Me, I will in this blog post continue our discussion about ethical dilemmas in regard to reading colleagues’ facial expressions and emotions. I believe that in a work setting, the ability to read facial expressions can create as much harm as good. The question I raise, is whether managers really should pursue this skill. That is not to say that a manager should not be a people person. It is impossible to distance yourself completely from reading obvious facial expressions and body language. I am merely talking about the active and intentional digging for information about people’s hidden feelings and emotions. Since we are in a business class, I dare to compare the difference to that of a radio and a radar: one is open for signals, while the other is in search of signals. I will address the latter.

The first problem I found has to do with productivity at work. For a work place to be efficient, it has to be professional and oriented towards the stated goals of the organization. A manager should concentrate on results and long-term culture, not devote his or her time to temporary feelings and emotions. Many people want to go to work in order to leave their problems at home and focus on their work tasks. Therefore, work should not be a constant reminder of personal issues. Of course personnel management is important, and it is necessary to handle a situation if one employer is discontent with his or her work assignment, or has any other issues at work. Nevertheless, every work place should be a proper arena for communication and feedback in the first place, without having to study facial expressions in depth.

The second problem is more concerned with the ethical aspect of the subject. People must be allowed to have their own secrets and feelings. Everyone has things they do not want to share. Trying to readpeople’s minds can be considered an intrusion into their private domain. If you as a manager find out that your employee hates your guts by reveling micro expressions of despite or anger, it is not necessarily a valid reason to take action, but it might be hard not to. The problem is even more severe if we consider the ability to read facial expressions as common knowledge. For example, you can tell that your boss can tell your feelings, and your boss can tell that you can tell and so on. Who would want to go to a job where you knew that your boss knew your inner feelings?

The TV series Lie to Me is based upon the work of Paul Ekman, who serves as a scientific consultant for the show. In the fictional show, Dr. Cal Lightman aids investigators and authorities to detect lies reviled in the suspects facial expressions. While this ability clearly serves him well as an interrogator, Lightman’s workplace is suffering from the brutal honesty that takes place when no one can hide a secret from each other and when every “Hi, how are you” can be dangerous. Because what should you do when you can detect a lie in the face of your colleague’s spouse? It is impossible to write off the importance of Ekman’s work, even for managers, but it might be that a manager should devote his or her time to more productive matters than the search of hidden emotions and feelings.


Further readings: I will also recommend the article of Adam Grant, The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, where he looks upon among other subjects how people with Machiavelli traits can use EI to manipulate others. Perhaps EI should not be judged by how people use or misuse the knowledge, but it is still a fun and interesting read of a problem that is worth being aware of. The article can be found here:

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