Your Success Depends on the Emotional Culture

Start paying attention.

Posted Apr 12, 2019

"A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear." —Herb Kelleher

Emotions are a fundamental part of who we are—they express our basic intelligence and energy. Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, taught us that you don’t have to check your heart or your sense of humor at the office door.

Ignoring or suppressing how people feel is harmful. Successful leaders integrate both authentic emotional and cognitive cultures. Just like Kelleher did.

Work Is an Emotional Arena

“For a long time, the dominant perspective has been that emotion is the opposite of rationality.” —Prof. Myeong-Gu Seo

Emotions lubricate collaboration—they facilitate social interactions.

Stephen Fineman, in his book Understanding Emotion at Work, characterized organizations as “emotional arenas”—their intense emotions divide and bond their members. Frustration, passion, boredom, envy, fear, and guilt—among others—are deeply woven in the way roles are learned and played. They shape decisions, power plays, engagement, and collaboration.

Sigal Barsade, professor of management at Wharton, warns organizations, “Decades’ worth of research demonstrates the importance of organizational culture, yet most of it has focused on the cognitive component.”

We must integrate both the cognitive culture—the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions—with the emotional culture—the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they silence.

“Every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression.” —Sigal Barsade

According to Fineman, organizations are often presented as rational enterprises. However, what seems like a comforting picture for the controlling managers, is not necessarily true—we can’t separate our calculative decisions from our intuition.

Numerous studies show that emotions shape intent and behavior in conjunction with cognition. Humans make simultaneous cognitive and emotional appraisals of a situation—they are not handled separately by the brain.

Feelings and emotions lubricate, rather than impair, rationality, according to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. As Stephen Fineman wrote, “Rationality is no longer the master process; nor is emotion. They both interpenetrate; they flow together in the same mold.” Unfortunately, many executives still see soft and hard skills as antagonistic.

Negative Emotions Are Not So Negative

Optimism has become almost a cult, according to social psychologist Aaron Sackett—pessimism comes with a deep stigma. Those who are labeled as negative, are excluded from the conversation. Executives quickly learn to cultivate sunny emotions. 

Sophie von Stumm has a piece of practical advice. The psychologist at Goldsmiths University, London spent many years researching the impact of mood and work. She recommends that, instead of worrying about low mood pulling us down, to focus on good mood as a cognitive performance booster.

Unfortunately, the quest to attract top talent sometimes turns culture into a PR stunt—organizations prioritize projecting a perfect image over honesty.

Authenticity eats a ‘positive’ culture for breakfast.

Both positive and negative emotions exist for a reason. Employees are sensors—they detect both problems and opportunities. Rather than dismissing negative emotions, understand what they are trying to tell you.

In this MIT article, Christine Pearson explains that, when it comes to managing negative emotions, most executives pressure employees to bottle their emotions, or hand them off to HR.

According to the leadership professor’s research, most managers simply don’t know how to deal with negative emotions.

Some blame it on their own bosses’ behaviors which force them to silence negative sentiments of their own and those of their team members.

Many executives complain that dealing with negativity drains too much time and energy. Others worry that their intervention could make things worse. Many more report they were not trained to manage emotions. Not surprisingly, all respondents could name bosses who missed business opportunities or generated unnecessary costs by mismanaging emotions at work.

It is impossible to block negative emotions from the workplace—no organization is immune to people’s highs and lows. However, most senior executives just want to listen to goods news, not to understand the reality of their teams.

“Our CEO doesn’t want to hear anything negative. Not a word about dissatisfaction.”

Dr. Michael Parke says. “When people are invested in their jobs, they can get upset or frustrated with things, but they should be able to share those emotions, so it doesn’t stymie their work or creativity.”

Negative emotions are a signal—silencing them won’t make problems go away.

Authenticity: the Most Powerful Emotional

Workplaces, where employees feel comfortable expressing their feelings, tend to be more productive, creative and innovative. That’s the key finding of studies by the University of Maryland’s School of Business and London School of Business.

A big factor that determines how people feel at work is "employee affect"—a term that encompasses moods and emotions.

The researchers determined six different mood-based climates—ranging from workplaces that suppress positive, negative or any display of emotion, to those that welcome positive, negative or all authentic emotional experiences and expressions.

“It’s true that sometimes emotions screw up,” says Seo, “but emotions are something to utilize, not to suppress or minimize, at work. If you look at Google, for example, and other good organizations out there, they actually foster and utilize emotion rather than killing it.”

Organizations that encourage people to be open and honest about their emotions perform better at:

  • Collaboration—establishing strong ties with colleagues
  • Productivity—the amount of work a team accomplishes when given a certain level of resources
  • Creativity—the number of new and helpful ideas a team generates
  • Reliability—the ability to avoid making mistakes or errors, particularly in high-pressure situations

Organizations that tackle employees’ moods and feelings outperform those that ignore emotions or force people to suppress negative ones.

Liberate Your Emotional Culture

Here are some ways to leverage the power of emotion I recommend based on my research and consulting.

Move from fear to fearless:

If people are afraid of speaking up, not only they will filter their emotions but keep their best ideas to themselves. Psychological safety is essential to encourage people to take interpersonal risks and create a “fearless organization.”

Just listen:

Ask how people feel—be quick to listen and slow to advise. “Listening meetings” are a powerful tool to hear what’s going on with your team directly. Dave Spence helped recover a mill after a months-long strike by simply “What do you want to talk about?” and then waited and just listened.

Mindset check-in:

Creating a regular space—in recurring weekly meetings, for example—to let people share “What’s got your attention?” not only increases awareness of how people are feeling but helps people remove distractions and drive more focused meetings, as I explain here.

Negative emotions are a signal:

Instead of suppressing or silencing them, listen to what negative emotions are telling you? Is a particular individual going through a rough time or are they a symptom of something that’s affecting your team? For example, Change wears people out—what looks like resistance could be exhaustion.

Be yourself; allow people to be themselves:

Don’t expect people to share their emotions if you don’t show yours first. Role model being human and vulnerable—leaders must balance their cognitive and emotional sides.

Avoid labeling people:

Emotions and moods are fluid. Labeling people as negative or not emotionally intelligent is easy. However, sometimes, those who are considered “problematic” are just playing a role on behalf of the team—they address what everyone is thinking, but no one is saying, as I wrote here.

Beware of blind spots:

Being positive all the time is exhausting—even the most optimistic people suffer from burnout. Seeing only the bright side not only makes them blind to their own kryptonite but can drain their energy. Everyone needs a moment to release their negative emotions.

Monitor your team mood:

Many companies, like United Way, use apps or buttons to track individual emotions. However, focusing on the collective mood is more important. When someone is going through a rough patch if others are supporting or balancing negative emotions, the overall group won’t suffer. Whatever tool you use, without psychological safety, don’t expect people to be honest.

Give people a break:

Allow people to take a break from high levels of emotional regulation and acknowledge their true feelings. Organizations that let people take a break behind the scenes tend to fare better under pressure.

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