Updated: Jan 18
I recently wrote about how being direct with what we desire involves six advanced leadership skills that promote transparency, direct communication, trust and authenticity. Until we develop each of the six “desire skills”, we are likely using another skill called “desire smuggling” to get what we want.
Desire smuggling is asserting our desires indirectly, in ways ranging from harmless to harmful. Whether we have a desire for a person, pizza, or promotion, our desires don’t just go away, and it’s only human to pursue them.
Why are our desires contraband? Marcia Baczynski, who coined the phrase in the context of romantic relationships, states that the world is “hostile to the sweet, fumbling, imperfect nature of desire.” We therefore hide what we really want and find covert strategies to get it. We fear rejection, humiliation, judgment, disappointment and shame. In short, it’s incredibly vulnerable to be transparent about our desires.
I’m applying Baczynski’s theory to work life, where we smuggle desire because we fear failure and making a poor impression. Leadership and culture can also promote desire smuggling, when there is poor delineation of advancement opportunities or unhealthy competition.
While desire smuggling is a normal human impulse, it is profoundly effective to be more direct about our desires. A glorious outcome is that it we are also more likely to get what we want. As author Timothy Freeth points out, “Many people are afraid to ask for what they want.…This means that it’s very easy to get what you want, just by asking for it. It’s precisely because other people are afraid to do it that it works so nicely.”
The price is courage, risk and vulnerability, which is why anonymizing suggestions is so popular.
Below are common ways to desire smuggle at work, along with how to challenge ourselves to cultivate Desire Skills and more skillfully name what we want:
1. Warm, Healthy, Pro-social Smuggle: “Let’s get coffee!”
Coffee is code for “I want to get to know you”, “I want you to be an ally”, “Maybe we can help each other”, or “I want career advice!” There’s nothing wrong with“coffee code”, but it creates transparency and focus to name what you really want.
Up-level: Lead with transparency about the desire. “I sense you have a lot of expertise and I would love some career insight. Would you like to get coffee sometime?”
2. Magical Thinking, Mind Reading, Martyrdom: “My boss must know that I want to stop [doing X] and start [doing Y].”
I used to be a junior manager for a major retailer. Although I was in “Creative Services”, a huge portion of my job involved managing a spreadsheet with hundreds of thousands of cells. I developed expertise that kept me stuck in my role. Because I was a young people pleaser, I never initiated a conversation with my supervisor about how to pass the torch of this behemoth. I just assumed that she knew it was dreadful and that I didn’t want to do it. So I smuggled my desire by magical thinking, hoping she would read my mind, quietly burning out as I martyred myself through spreadsheet wizardry.
Up-level: Initiate a conversation with your supervisor about what else you want to do. Have suggestions for how to hand off the task that drains you.
Up-up level: Share that you’re concerned about burning out, and would love to figure out ways to keep growing so you can stay engaged.
3. Passive Aggression & Toe Stepping: “How about I go ahead and get started on the [most fun part of the project that is someone else’s job] today?” My coaching client works with an ambitious junior employee who keeps grabbing for the senior tasks while not staying atop her less glamorous tasks. My client’s stress levels sky rocket when she “graciously volunteers” to do the senior level creative tasks, under the guise of helping the team out.
Up-level: Admit you’re being passive aggressive. Sharpen awareness that passive aggressive behaviors at work are unsettling and compromise psychological safety. Challenge yourself to be direct. Suggest how you might formally participate in tasks you’re interested in. Don’t step on toes, it hurts people.
Up-up level: Approach the senior member of your team whose role you want. Let them know you are interested in cultivating skills for that task. Ask if they could mentor you or if you could assist them. Cultivate a relationship and learn as much as possible from senior members of your team. Acknowledging seniority and practicing humility goes a long way with creating trust and strong relationships.
4. Hyper Reason: “We can’t give him a raise until we have data about compensation for remote engineers in [small, far away country] working for Bay Area startups with a hybrid model.” Translation: I don’t want give him a raise, and I want to buy time while you search for data that doesn’t exist yet.
As an executive coach, I hear about a lot of hyper rational desire smuggling. It’s a popular way to desire smuggle because it’s safe and appropriate: who is going to challenge a request for data? However, excessive fact finding & reporting burns time and energy, when intuitive discernment is sometimes enough.
Up-level: Acknowledge resistance and examine it. What is blocking you from giving the raise? It is fear about precedent? Concerns about performance? Looking at the deeper reasons for resistance illuminates richer answers.
Up-up level: Share your discernment & desire process with your report to model honesty and emotional intelligence. “I feel an impulse to send you searching for data, but the truth is I don’t want to give him a raise. My resistance comes from uncertainty that his performance merits a raise, and concern that we are burning through resources too quickly.”
5. Sabotage & Manipulation "I won’t invite [annoying stakeholder] to the meeting because I actually want to make progress.”
A move like this is a power grab that harms relationships and undercuts psychological safety. An absence of psychological safety is lethal to workflow because our brainpower goes toward protecting and defending ourselves instead of being creative and focused on the work itself.
Up-level: Practice having influence by strengthening relationships, not compromising them. Challenge yourself to interact with the annoying stakeholder in a more effective way. (How to be more effective will depend on your unique dynamic with them.)
Up-up level: If you feel the desire to sabotage or manipulate, reframe the situation as an opportunity to strengthen relationships. Recognize that compromising psychological safety will be damaging to the organization. Power and influence grow when we navigate challenging situations while strengthening relationships. If you make strengthening relationships a primary desire, over time you will have a larger trusted network while improving your quality of work life.
In summary, desire smuggling can range from healthy to harmful. Raise awareness and challenge yourself by asking:
1. Am I desire smuggling?
2. What are my preferred methods of desire smuggling?
3. What can I do to be more direct and effective?
4. Is [person or team X] desire smuggling?
5. What do they really want? (See Desire Skill #6)
6. How can help them feel safe enough to be more direct?
I’d love to hear about your experiences with desire smuggling! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, message me at LinkedIn, or comment here!