The Emotional Side Of Culture

The Emotional Side Of Culture

Senior leaders must instill the emotional culture of their organization.

When you hear “corporate culture,” you probably think of the implied shared values and behaviors that influence how an organization operates. For example, corporate culture determines whether your company is customer-focused, innovative, supportive or risk-taking. Corporate culture sways how employees think and behave at work and evolves organically over time.

These cultural traits are critical, but if you think they are all that’s influencing the pulse of your company, you’re missing a key piece of the puzzle, which is emotional culture. This is understanding how people feel about work, their associates, their leaders, and what emotions they express and/or suppress. Unlike corporate culture, which is instilled primarily through verbal methods, emotional culture is instilled principally through nonverbal clues such as facial expressions and body language that indicate emotion, as well speaking about emotions such as joy, affection for workmates, anger, fear and sadness.

I must admit that emotional culture is a concept I had to learn. When I first became an executive, I thought it was just a bunch of warm and fuzzy psychobabble. I expected that the people reporting to me were as income- and career-driven as I was, and I probably was not as in tune to people’s emotions about work as I should have been. If I had taken more time to understand how people felt about their work, our workplace and values, our relationships would have been more productive in the long run.

Over the years my values have developed and I have become more enlightened about the importance of emotional culture. As a result, I’m amazed at the resources some organizations spend on quality-control efforts and process methodologies while ignoring their emotional culture; later on, leadership wonders why results from these efforts aren’t what they expected. Understanding emotional culture should be the first step to get to the heart of why people are or are not engaged in their work. If quality and process improvement efforts are implemented in a vacuum without regard to employees’ emotional motivations, these projects will remain theories and their effectiveness will be stunted.

Significant empirical research has shown that emotional culture affects teamwork, employee satisfaction and engagement. A healthy emotional culture begets employees who show up for work more often, and their optimistic attitudes carry over to more positive customer interactions and productivity. As a result, a healthy emotional culture positively influences retention rates, financial performance, efficiency and quality.

Walk the talk

Most organizations have corporate values statements, which are important, but I am challenging leaders to go deeper and consciously model desired emotional behavior. For instance, catch employees in the act of doing the right things and take the time for small acts of kindness and support, such as showing genuine interest in employees’ families or hobbies, and being supportive during a difficult divorce, illness or death.

Understand emotions and set expectations

Leaders are like mirrors and should model desired behavior in their organizations. They ought to also allow employees to express emotions, seek to understand them and make a conscious effort to encourage desired emotions. Surveying or interviewing employees about emotions at work is a way to learn what motivates them, what makes them feel valued and whether they are experiencing a sense of excitement and belonging at work.

The next step is to focus on a few critical emotional behaviors, like having fun at work or rejecting a culture based on fear. The CEO must set explicit expectations with middle managers and supervisors to act consistently. Employees are influenced the most by their immediate supervisor, so the CEO should make it clear, for example, that angry outbursts when someone makes a mistake are not acceptable.

Integrate emotional behaviors with operating systems

Finally, formalize desired emotional expectations into your company’s operations and processes. Begin staff meetings with nominations for the best act of kindness or joy-filled celebration of a job well done, for example. Incorporate expected emotional behaviors into performance reviews and compensation systems, revamp quality-control processes to allow for safe whistle-blowing, or reward employees whose desired emotional behavior is so contagious that their fellow employees “catch” it.

A valuable trove of written material exists about corporate culture, but unfortunately the emotional side of culture is often ignored. Emotional culture motivates how everyone—from the mailroom to the boardroom—conducts themselves. So it’s up to the executive-level leaders to determine and manage the emotional culture of their organization. You’ll know you’ve made real progress when you hear employees humming the melody of that old love ballad in the hallways: “Feelings, whoa-oa-oa, feelings …”

Mark W. Sheffert ( is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies Inc., a Minneapolis-based board and management advisory firm specializing in business recovery, transformation, performance improvement, board governance, and litigation support.

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