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Is Your Workplace Thriving?

Interview with Mandy O'Neill

iStock:IgorBukhin
iStock:IgorBukhin

Is the emotional culture in your workplace generally positive and upbeat, a little flat and exhausted, or quite negative and toxic? Every workplace has an emotional culture, but does the way your workplace feel really matter? And how might it impact how you feel personally?

“Mostly when we talk about workplace culture, we’re referring to the shared cognitive values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that shape how we think and act at work. While this is important, it is only part of the story – we also need to consider the emotional culture that impacts on what feelings we express or suppress at work,” explained Associate Professor Mandy O’Neill from George Mason University School of Business when I interviewed her recently. “Emotional culture is not just about feeling good, we’ve found it can have a real impact on workplace satisfaction, engagement, teamwork, health and safety, and your organization’s bottom line.”

When there is a culture of positive emotions, studies have found that you’re more likely to have better performance, better customer service, and be more innovative. However, an ongoing culture of negative emotions often leads to burnout, absenteeism, poor performance, and high turnover.

Mandy explained that every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression. However, while cognitive culture is often intentionally managed, emotional culture usually gets overlooked or ignored because leaders may not understand its importance, or they may feel ill-equipped to manage how their people feel and express emotions at work.

Managing your emotional culture doesn’t mean that you need to avoid negative emotions, after all, these are often signposts to action that needs to be taken. Instead, leaders need to understand emotions and why they’re happening.

To improve the emotional culture of your workplace, Mandy recommended:

  • Measuring your emotional culture – There’s a wide range of ways to do this, and generally, the more different ways you do this, the better your results. It might be with surveys or, if possible, try to catch people’s emotions when they actually happen, rather than reporting on them afterward. There’s also a range of new technology available, but you need to be sensitive to what will work in your organization, for example, 3D cameras may work for some but will feel like an invasion of privacy to others. You can also measure the artifacts around the workplace – from the website and mission statements, to the jokes hanging around employees’ cubicles – which can help you tap into the underlying, taken-for-granted assumptions of your culture.
  • Fostering connections – In the strongest cultures, the metaphor of “family” is often useful because it describes a notion of belonging and of knowing each other well. What’s going on in others’ lives? What do they bring to the organization outside of the workplace and over the course of their lifespan? Unfortunately, we often feel that we have less time to get to know each other and hear about those aspects of each other’s lives, that are the vehicles of creating and sustaining a culture of love. Forge opportunities to get together with your team to catch up and talk about something not work-related. Make a habit of checking in with each other. Even the most difficult co-workers have a story, something about their life, history, and experience that can explain a lot about who they’re bringing to work every day.
  • Creating micro-cultures – If your leaders are too stressed or distracted to focus on the emotional culture, you can create micro-cultures or subcultures of positive emotions within your organization. As emotions are contagious, if you’re someone who can bring joy, gratitude, caring, and affection, chances are that these will spread to others. Negative emotions also spread, so it’s important to be intentional about the ripple effect you want to have with your water cooler buddies, group, or network in your organization. All it can take are micro-moments of positivity to nudge your emotional culture. For example, using humor can be a much more functional way of coping with really painful or annoying events, than constant complaining. Kind humor can also help you feel more comfortable about having difficult conversations or giving challenging feedback.

What do you do to foster a more positive emotional culture in your workplace?

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