Managing Our Emotional Organisational Culture – A Step Too Far?

A recent article in Harvard Business Review really made me think. The authors propose that failure to manage organisational culture has a negative impact on business performance. No kidding, huh? But read on! They actually write about not only managing organisational culture in terms of the norms and values that influence how people behave at work, but also managing the emotional organisational culture. The what?? Yes, the emotional culture, that which influences emotions people feel and express at work, and it’s usually conveyed non-verbally – through body language and facial expression.

Now I must admit, when I read the article through the first time I thought “oh come on, are we really talking about trying to manage people’s emotions? That’s just a step too far!”. But then I read it again and it started to make a bit more sense.

If we think about it, the organisational culture we develop creates an environment, that environment generates thought and that thought links to an emotion. For example, you walk into the office of any organisation and start to form impressions immediately. You think the place seems very formal/informal, drab/bright, welcoming/unwelcoming, energetic/subdued, creative/conservative, and so on. Now think about the feelings that you experience with those impressions: fun, happiness, excitement, affection, camaraderie, boredom, anxiety,  depression, isolation, and so forth.

Perhaps it makes sense that instead of thinking about organisational culture in the traditional way: What are our core values? How do we want people to behave? What are our policies on X or Y?… we should ask ourselves some different questions: How do we want people to feel when they come to work? How do we want people to make others feel? How do we want people to feel as they leave to go home from work? What would the impact – on the work environment, on performance, on our customers, on our image as a business – be if people experienced positive emotions at work and displayed those emotions consistently?

The authors of the article say that their research shows that positive emotions are consistently associated with better performance, quality, and customer service, and that negative emotions such as group anger, sadness and fear usually lead to negative outcomes including poor performance and high turnover.

Many of our clients approach us to help them change their organisational culture – identify core values, competencies and behaviours and developing a change plan. Perhaps if we started at the end point and defined the emotions we’d like our organisation culture to generate we could identify what would need to change to make them real. How would our leaders need to behave? What emotions would they need to model to develop the culture? What changes would we need to make to our ways of working? How would we need to engage with our people to understand how they really feel? Difficult questions to answer, perhaps, but the research suggests the benefits for everyone would be worth the effort. Granted, it’s a different way of looking at culture change, but looking at things from a different perspective often leads us to the best outcomes.

You can read the full HBR article here.