Checking your emotional pulse

February 29, 2016

By Rachel Suff, February 2016

Manage your emotional culture, Sigal Barsade and Olivia A.O’Neill, Harvard Business Review

Companies often put a lot of effort into fostering their desired organisational culture but typically fail to grasp the crucial role that emotions play in building the right culture. Instead, they tend to focus on ‘cognitive culture’, such as the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that guide how people think and behave at work, this article says. These elements are very important but do not provide the complete picture for building an effective culture. The authors describe some of the ways that emotional culture manifests at work and suggests ways for companies to create and maintain an emotional culture.

The article describes the key difference between cognitive and emotional culture as ‘thinking versus feeling’. Emotional culture refers to the shared ‘affective’ values, norms, artifacts and assumptions that govern how people feel at work. The two types of culture are also communicated differently – cognitive culture is conveyed verbally while emotional culture is more likely to be transmitted via non-verbal cues such as body language.

Barsade and O’Neill say that there is hard evidence demonstrating the significant impact of emotions on how people perform at work, their level of engagement and creativity. According to the authors, emotional culture has an impact on employee satisfaction, burnout, teamwork, and even ‘hard’ measures like financial performance, staff turnover and sickness absence. Therefore, if managers fail to understand emotional culture, they’re ignoring a vital component of what makes organisations tick, and their companies suffer as a result.

Putting the emotion into culture

So how can an organisation go about building an emotional culture? The article points out that some companies such as PepsiCo now explicitly incorporate emotions into their management principles. It cautions that you have to make sure that what is codified in mission statements is also translated into the ‘micro-moments’ of daily organisational life. This can involve ‘small gestures’ rather than ‘bold declarations of feeling’. The authors give an example of how not to do it, which could be a manager coming to work with an angry facial expression and cultivating a culture of anger.

The authors give some examples of emotional cultures – they say that every organisation has an emotional culture, even if it’s one characterised by suppression – such as a culture of joy, or compassionate love. Censeo, a consulting firm, has consciously fostered a culture based on the latter and only hires people who will help to sustain it. Its approach has helped to make authentic connections with clients and improved the firm’s impact. The company encourages employees to cultivate genuine relationships at and outside work and people now hold themselves accountable for treating one another with compassion.

Building an emotional culture is not without risks. Even positive emotions can ‘have unintended consequences if given too much sway’. For instance, in a culture of love, some people may be reluctant to have an open discussion about problems because it may impede the positive culture.

(How) can it happen?

The article suggests three methods for creating an emotional culture which must involve encouraging people to feel the emotions that the organisation values. The first approach involves harnessing what people already feel as some are likely to experience the desired emotions quite naturally. It will undoubtedly be harder to deal with emotions that are ‘toxic’ to the desired emotional culture and expecting people to suppress such emotions won’t work – it’s important to listen to how employees feel and encourage them to develop a more constructive perspective.

Secondly, ‘model the emotions you want to cultivate’. This means that managers and champions of the desired culture need to demonstrate the emotions, for example by walking into a room ‘smiling with high energy’ – but you have to mean it.

Finally, ‘get people to fake it till they feel it’. Even if people aren’t feeling joyful at a key moment, the article says that they can still help to maintain the organisation’s emotional culture because people do express emotions both spontaneously and strategically at work.

This point is probably true, and most individuals will try to portray a ‘professional’ face at work even if they are feeling negative. So perhaps it is possible strategically to buy into a more joyful culture at an emotional level. However, I suspect that many readers will be sceptical about setting out to build a culture of joy or compassionate love at work. With CIPD research showing that a significant proportion of people feel under excessive pressure at work at least once a week, and work-related stress on the increase, it could seem aspirational to turn some workplaces into a joyful environment. It’s a great idea – but it won’t happen unless organisations also address a host of core organisational issues (if they need to) such as workload, working hours, the quality of people management and diversity. The article does acknowledge that it’s important to link the emotional culture to operations and processes but what this entails should not be underestimated.

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