Tell Me How You Really Feel – Defining and Managing Emotional Culture

Tell Me How You Really Feel

Defining and Managing Emotional Culture

We talk a lot about company culture and how it coalesces uniquely for each individual business. How customer-focused, innovative, team-oriented and competitive your employees should be are important elements in your culture mix. These elements are examples of cognitive culture – shared intellectual values, norms and assumptions that outline how employees should think and behave. But there’s a less tangible aspect of company culture that’s often overlooked. This is known as emotional culture, and it governs which emotions people have and express at work and which they are better off suppressing. Every organization has an emotional culture but few deliberately define it, and this frequently leads to negative outcomes such as poor performance and high turnover.

Emotions have a significant impact on performance, engagement, creativity, commitment and decision-making. Over a decade of research by business management professors Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill has shown that emotional culture influences employee satisfaction, burnout, teamwork, and hard measures such as financial performance and absenteeism. So when managers fail to define emotional culture from the start, they’re overlooking a vital part of what makes their employees tick. Emotional cultures can range from positive ones of joy and companionate love, to negative ones of fear and anger. The trick is to cultivate the way you want employees to feel, but not let emotions run amok. You want employees’ emotions to align with emotions valued by the company…but how do you make this happen?

First, harness what people already feel. Encourage organic moments of compassion, gratitude and mindfulness. Create a “compliments board” for employees to leave anonymous kudos for their coworkers. Schedule time for meditation. Take note of expressed negative emotion and really listen to the underlying problem to help them consider the situation in more constructive way. Second, model the emotions you want to cultivate. Emotions – both positive and negative – are contagious (more on this in our blog on workplace bullying). People in groups “catch” feelings from others. Walk into the office upbeat and smiling and your employees will “catch” those emotional cues and mimic them. The third method is to get people to fake it until they feel it. Social psychology has long shown that individuals tend to conform to group norms out of a desire to be liked and accepted. If you consistently practice the defined emotional values and get enough of your employees on board, chances are the rest of your team will begin to demonstrate these values as well. 

The key to this puzzle is having the organizational structure in place to define and communicate both cognitive and emotional culture. It’s easy to brush this off to Human Resources, but it will be up to senior leaders and top level management from every department to establish which emotions will help the organization thrive, model those emotions, and reward others for doing the same. Middle managers and supervisors must ensure that the emotions they express at work reflect the chosen culture and ensure that others consistently practice the emotional values as well. Spend as much time on developing company culture as you do your business plan and we guarantee it will make you a more desirable, effective, successful company in the eyes of both your employees and your customers.