When people talk about corporate culture, they’re usually referring to cognitive culture: the shared intellectual values that serve as a guide for employees to develop and thrive. Cognitive culture sets the tone for how employees think and behave at work—for instance, how competitive, innovative, customer-focused, or team-oriented they are or should be.
Although extremely important to an organisation’s success, cognitive culture is only part of the story. The other critical part is what we call emotional culture: the shared affective values that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing. The difference between cognitive and emotional is essentially thinking versus feeling, but what’s interesting is that they are 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.
Unfortunately, emotional culture is rarely managed as deliberately as cognitive culture—and often it’s not managed at all. Leading companies to suffer as a result. Our emotions advocate for our needs. Anger, resentment, anxiety and fear can all boil up when an employee is expected to leave emotions at home and smile at their desk.
Conversely, pride energizes individuals’ efforts when they feel in touch with the meaning and larger purpose of their work. When we are in alignment with meeting a need, feelings push us forward: Positive feelings energize and motivate us. When a need is not being met, feelings slam on the brakes: Negative feelings such as anger and frustration block action and contribution.
How can supressing emotion cause issues in the workplace?
Employees working within industries like health care who should be showing compassion, could become callous and indifferent. Teams that would benefit from joy and pride instead tolerate a culture of anger. People feeling hurt, ignored, or unappreciated may have a lack of care about the organisation and could make decisions recklessly, exposing the company to risk.
Even more damaging is suppression from a managerial level. Outdated management strategies such as pitting employees against one another to get the best work out of them, can create a strong culture of envy, which can erode trust and undermine employees’ ability to collaborate.
All of these effects can be especially damaging during times of upheaval, such as organizational restructurings and financial downturns.
Countless 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 organisations, and how they make decisions. Emotional culture influences employee satisfaction, teamwork, burnout and even financial performance and absenteeism.
Counteract suppression and create an emotional culture
Recognise feelings. Start by understanding the importance of feelings. Rather than looking the other way, or pretending they are not there, managers must begin to recognize and articulate emotions. Those in leadership positions can openly speak about their own feelings, both positive and negative, encouraging employees to do the same. Individuals are often not fully aware of feelings even when under their influence. Open discussion about a feeling helps to integrate the brain into the emotion and allow for processing.
Establish needs. Because feelings are always messengers of needs, the next step is to follow the feeling to the need. Needs are actionable and often multidimensional. Getting to the need requires patience from the listener and introspection on the part of the feeler. It is best achieved by the listener simply asking “What do you need?” and demonstrating a desire to change the situation for the feeler.
Meet needs. By meeting needs, organisations dissipate negative feelings and unlock positive ones that help a business thrive. Needs are best met through action — not just discussion. Employees who feel that their needs are being not just considered but actually met, are far more likely to feel valued, appreciated and content within their jobs.
Conduct check ins. Once the feelings have been established and the needs met, leaders will need to incorporate ways to encourage and allow employees to bring their emotions to work. Conduct individual or group check-ins that encourage employees to share what they feel, be aware of where their attention is and process and manage their emotions.
Honest leadership. Leaders must use their emotional intelligence and manage how they present their emotions so they can lift and energize their spirits before interacting with their teams. Faking positivity will not suffice. The team will pick up on emotional cues through things like posture, facial expression and body language and could catch on to negative emotions. This could cause the team to distrust their leader if they feel that what is being said and what is being portrayed are two different things. It is ultimately the responsibility of anyone within a senior leadership position to encourage the spread of positive emotions as this will inevitably contribute to higher productivity, increased job satisfaction and improve team performance.