Are You Numbing Your Workforce?

There is a classic TedTalk featuring Brené Brown, in which she points out that “we cannot selectively numb emotion.” In other words, if you are numbing yourself emotionally to something that bothers you, you have to numb yourself on all other levels as well.

Back when I was a young professional bass player, I was all too aware of this phenomenon. Playing music demands extreme emotional “engagement,” but I can vividly recall those occasions where various workplace irritants would force me to “numb up.” My colleagues and I would collectively cope by simply delivering the bare minimum performance needed to get paid.

Some may call this unprofessional. To us in the orchestra, it felt like justice. If a manager or conductor failed to appreciate us as craftspeople, artists, and human beings, this was not suffered lightly. (Sometimes our reactions went from numbness to outright vengeful sabotage. Playing music for money exposes one’s vulnerability in a major way, and hell hath no fury like a bass player scorned.)

So when I found myself on the other side of the hiring/management fence, my highest priority was not to “motivate” anyone. That, I knew, was a given. The real trick to getting top performance out of my “team” was to remove any irritants that might force them to “numb up” and drop their preferred ultra-high performance level in order to survive my work environment.

For example, one thing I learned the hard way: never mix first-raters with second raters.  If you ask a first-rater to do a team-oriented task with a second-rater, that first-rater is going to get irritated. For first-raters, working with second-raters is extremely painful. If the first-rater doesn’t quit and leave you and your second rater all on your own, they will numb up to cope, and become functionally second-rate themselves.

If I may be so bold as to mention the elephant in the living room, managerial apathy or incompetence is a huge contributor to employee numbness. If the way things are being managed is inefficient, or it is causing chronic (unnecessary) boredom or panic, then people have to distance themselves emotionally in order to survive.

Fear is another management tactic that leads to numbness. Playing favorites? The pain of injustice begets numbness. Trust violations? Forget it.

And then there are all sorts of subtle little elements having to do with the careful use of power, such as showing respect and giving people recognition and loyalty. If people are not getting the “strokes” they need from authority figures, that leads to numbness too.

Again, we cannot numb selectively. If your team has to numb themselves in response to a single chronic irritant, they will also shut down everything else, including their concern for what your customers want.

As a manager, I always found that everyone always wanted to come to work and do a good job for me. I had no issues of motivation or engagement in the first ten minutes. It did, however, weigh heavily upon me to not do things that would destroy that gossamer tapestry. That emotional energy did not need to be created, but it did need to be protected.

(About the Author: Justin Locke spent 18 years playing bass in the Boston Pops, and his musical plays are performed all over the world. He is a philosopher, humorist, author, speaker, and coach. He shares an amusing pragmatic approach to personal growth, “people skills,” and management, based on his experience in the world of the performing arts. For more, visit his website at

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