The Case for Getting Emotional at Work

January 14, 2016 Sarah Payne

The emotional cast of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

Type “emotion in the workplace” into Google search and you’ll get pages of how-to articles on managing your emotions—from the perils of crying at work to controlling your temper and other negative emotions. While these articles are well intentioned, there is more to the story on the role emotion plays at work.

After all, we are all emotional beings (as evidenced in Pixar’s heartwarming film Inside Out). If we want to build workplaces that are fit for humans, rather than programmable robots, we should start by taking a closer look at the role emotions can play in curating culture, motivating our people, and even driving productivity.

Companionate love at work

In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, Sigal Barsade, professor of at Wharton, and Olivia A. O’Neill, assistant professor at George Mason University, outline their study, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?: The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting.”

The focus of the study is companionate love, which is “far less intense than romantic love. Companionate love is based on warmth, affection, and connection rather than passion.”

They surveyed 185 employees, 108 patients, and 42 patient family members at a large, nonprofit long-term healthcare facility and hospital. And they found that, “Employees who felt they work in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork. They showed up to work more often.” Interestingly, there was also a positive impact on client outcomes, like patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the ER.

Barsade and O’Neill conducted a follow up study on seven different industries, including financial services and real estate. The results were the same. “People who worked in a culture where they felt free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance.”

Fostering an emotional culture

As leaders, how do we begin to foster that kind of caring, compassionate culture in our own workplaces? Is it even possible? These same researchers offer advice in their latest article, Manage Your Emotional Culture. The key is to understand the difference between cognitive culture and emotional culture.

Cognitive culture is “the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that serve as a guide for the group to thrive.” Emotional culture is “the shared affective values, norms artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones are better off suppressing.”

One way to create an emotional culture is to harness what people already feel. Barsade and O’Neill write, “Some employees will experience the desired emotions quite naturally. This can happen in isolated moments of compassion and gratitude…If people have them periodically and need help sustaining them, you can try incorporating some gentle nudges during the workday.”

One type of nudge that many successful organizations use is a social recognition program that features a internal social newsfeed, making peer-to-peer moments of recognition visible throughout the organization. The collective celebration of work achievements and desired behaviors feeds back into the overall culture of the organization.

Social recognition can also help with Barsade and O’Neill’s next tip: “Get people to fake it till they feel it.” They write, “Social psychology research has long shown that individuals tend to conform to group norms of emotional expression, imitating others out of a desire to be liked and accepted. So employees in a strong emotional culture who would not otherwise feel and express the valued emotion will begin to demonstrate it—even if their initial motivation is to be compliant rather than to internalize culture.”

This is also why it’s so important that leadership really demonstrates and lives out the espoused values of an organization.

How managers impact emotional culture

Studies show that managers’ actions can also have a significant impact on employees’ emotions—and ultimately their performance—at work.

In  “The Power of Small Wins,” Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven J. Kramer, independent researcher, share their research on how inner work life—the emotions, motivations, and perceptions over the course of the workday—impact creativity and productivity.

After studying diary entries from 238 individuals on 26 project teams from seven different companies, they developed the progress principle, which states that: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Based on this research, Amabile and Kramer share two ways managers can help employees make meaningful progress, and therefore improve their emotional work lives:

  1. Catalysts: These are actions that support work. “They include setting clear goals, allowing autonomy, providing sufficient resources and time, helping with the work, openly learning from problems and successes, and allowing a free exchange of ideas.”
  2. Nourishers: These are acts of interpersonal support, including “respect and recognition, encouragement, emotional comfort, and opportunities for affiliation.”

Consciously using catalysts and nourishers can really move the needle in shaping employees’ perception of their work and promoting positive emotions. As we’ve seen, when organizations allow these positive emotions to flow in the workplace, it can impact key metrics like satisfaction, teamwork, commitment to the organization, productivity, and creativity.



The Power of Workplace Gratitude: A Brief Bibliography

The Witness Effect: How Social Recognition and Gratitude Impact Everyone

In Search of Happiness at Work

Spillover, Crossover, and Emotional Spirals at Work and Home

5 Companies Whose Great Cultures Saved Their Bacon

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