Manage Your Emotional Culture

Idea in Brief

The Problem

Most companies pay little attention to their emotional culture—which feelings people have (and should have) at work, and which ones they keep to themselves. That presents problems for both individuals and organizations.

The Reason

Research shows that, for better or worse, emotions influence employees’ commitment, creativity, decision making, work quality, and likelihood of sticking around—and you can see the effects on the bottom line. So it’s important to monitor and manage people’s feelings as deliberately as you do their mindset.

The Solution

Once you have a handle on your existing emotional culture, you can shape it in several ways. Explicitly say which emotions will help the organization thrive, channel the feelings that people have and express naturally, and cultivate the ones you want through emotional contagion and the power of “deep acting.”

Before leaving work each day, employees at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings press a button in the lobby. They’re not punching out—not in the traditional sense, anyway. They’re actually registering their emotions. They have five buttons to choose from: a smiley face if they felt happy at work that day, a frowny face if they felt sad, and so on.

This may sound like an HR gimmick (“See? Management cares how you feel!”) or an instrument of forced satisfaction (“The team with the most smiley faces wins!”). But it’s neither. Ubiquity is using the data it collects to understand what motivates employees—to learn what makes them feel a sense of belonging and excitement at work. Other organizations are starting to do the same. Some use apps that record how much fun people are having. Some hire technology consultants who specialize in the monthly, weekly, daily, or even hourly tracking of moods. Unfortunately, though, these organizations are in the minority. Most companies pay little attention to how employees are—or should be—feeling. They don’t realize how central emotions are to building the right culture.

When people talk about corporate culture, they’re typically referring to cognitive culture: the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that serve as a guide for the group to thrive. Cognitive culture sets the tone for how employees think and behave at work—for instance, how customer-focused, innovative, team-oriented, or competitive they are or should be.

Cognitive culture is undeniably important to an organization’s success. But it’s only part of the story. The other critical part is what we call the group’s emotional culture: the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing. Though the key distinction here is thinking versus feeling, the two types of culture are also transmitted differently: Cognitive culture is often conveyed verbally, whereas emotional culture tends to be conveyed through nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expression.

Despite a renaissance of scholarship (dubbed “the affective revolution”) on the ways that emotions shape people’s behavior at work, emotional culture is rarely managed as deliberately as cognitive culture—and often it’s not managed at all. Companies suffer as a result. Employees who should be showing compassion (in health care, for example) become callous and indifferent. Teams that would benefit from joy and pride instead tolerate a culture of anger. People who lack a healthy amount of fear (say, in security firms or investment banks) act recklessly. The effects can be especially damaging during times of upheaval, such as organizational restructurings and financial downturns.

In our research over the past decade, we have found that emotional culture influences employee satisfaction, burnout, teamwork, and even hard measures such as financial performance and absenteeism. Countless empirical studies show the significant impact of emotions on how people perform on tasks, how engaged and creative they are, how committed they are to their organizations, and how they make decisions. Positive emotions are consistently associated with better performance, quality, and customer service—this holds true across roles and industries and at various organizational levels. On the flip side (with certain short-term exceptions), negative emotions such as group anger, sadness, fear, and the like usually lead to negative outcomes, including poor performance and high turnover.

Every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression.

So when managers ignore emotional culture, they’re glossing over a vital part of what makes people—and organizations—tick. They may understand its importance in theory but can still shy away from emotions at work. Leaders expect to influence how people think and behave on the job, but they may feel ill equipped to understand and actively manage how employees feel and express their emotions at work. Or they may regard doing so as irrelevant, not part of their job, or unprofessional.

In our interviews with executives and employees, some people have told us that their organizations lack emotion altogether. But every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression. By not only allowing emotions into the workplace, but also understanding and consciously shaping them, leaders can better motivate their employees. In this article we’ll illustrate some of the ways in which emotional culture manifests at work and the impact it can have in a range of settings, from health care and emergency services to finance, consulting, and high tech. Drawing on our findings, we’ll also suggest ways of creating and maintaining an emotional culture that will help you achieve your company’s larger goals.

Delving Beneath the Surface

Some companies have begun to explicitly include emotions in their management principles. For instance, PepsiCo, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods Market, The Container Store, and Zappos all list love or caring among their corporate values. Similarly, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Camden Property Trust, Cisco Finance, Ubiquity, and Vail Resorts, along with many start-ups, highlight the importance of fun to their success.

Read full article at Manage Your Emotional Culture

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