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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Becker

How to create an organisational culture where emotion sits at a surface-level

According to Susan David, Harvard medical psychologist, the cornerstone of resilience, thriving and true happiness is the radical acceptance of all our emotions. How we deal with our inner world drives everything – from home life to work life. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to us given that one of our human commonalities is that we all have emotions, including the ones that we like and the ones we’d rather not acknowledge. There is, however, a guaranteed moment in life when we don’t have to deal with our emotions, but sadly that is when we have passed on from this world. So not tuning in to our emotions, ignoring or suppressing them, is, according to Susan David, ‘dead people’s goals’.

A little about the history and power of emotions

The word emotion stems from the French word “emouvoir” which means “to stir up”. It is worth remembering that we are not our emotions - emotions are a data source. They tell us something, but they do not define us. Having said this, the power of our emotions is not to be underestimated. Research by Sandeep Jauhar, a practicing cardiologist, has shown how emotions can change the shape of our heart, demonstrating a direct physical effect on the human heart. Fear and grief, for example, can cause profound cardiac injury. There is a heart disorder called "takotsubo cardiomyopathy," or "the broken heart syndrome," in which the heart severely weakens in response to intense stress or grief, such as after a romantic break-up or the death of a loved one. A grieving heart appears stunned and balloons into the shape of a takotsubo, a Japanese pot with a wide base and a narrow neck. The syndrome usually resolves within a few weeks, and it remains unknown as to why it occurs. During the critical period however, it can cause heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, and even death.

So, how does this relate in a workplace context?

Even though we have long lived with the preconception that emotions in the work environment are best kept hidden, suppressed, and unspoken about unless we are seriously unwell or dead (!), we are not immune against stress and obstacles. This includes us responding constructively to an employee’s emotions – be it about the war in Ukraine or their emotions about returning to the office after long periods of time in social isolation. If we respond to these emotions in a positive manner, we can help to create a sense of belonging and engagement, ownership, and innovation. If we minimise the problem or respond in a dismissive manner, we risk undermining performance and leaving colleagues feeling unheard and unsupported. They may even feel isolated.

Labelling emotions has the effect of activating the thinking centre of our brains, rather than the emotional centre – a valuable skill in high-performing organisations. Acknowledging ours and others’ emotions in a work context offers a critical data point and an opportunity to gain knowledge about situations and interactions. This type of knowledge can help organisations and individuals to modify behaviours, align values and actions and initiate change. It ensures that we as humans continue to show up for ourselves and our colleagues on a daily basis.

The rise of toxic positivity

One thought to keep in mind when talking about emotions at work is toxic positivity. Toxic positivity refers to the overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state that dismisses, minimises, and invalidates the authentic human emotional experiences and it appears in abundance on social media channels and posts. As well-intentioned as it is, it creates a dissonance between the actual lived emotion and the false reassurance. “Good vibes only” and “just stay positive” are better replaced by something like, “Things are tough right now; do you want to talk about it?” or doing something light-hearted.

Shaping organisational culture with emotional awareness and acceptance front and centre

Emotions are central to building the right organisational culture, and this is reflected through employees consistently showing up, and acting and behaving in a similar way. These actions and behaviours bring organisations to life, and within this are a series of small gestures – also known as micro moments, where culture is truly lived, and this can be a great lever for change. This can be achieved virtually as well as in person through genuine words of encouragement after a tough meeting, or when someone is going through a challenging life event. It can even go as far as making emotions part of the performance management systems, e.g., by rating supportive behaviours such as listening to others, being inclusive, being welcoming to others and providing support to colleagues.

Insight collected from our work with several of our clients reveals that employees now seek more connection and a sense of belonging, and the purpose of the physical office as such has changed towards a space that fosters this. Belonging and connection are both primal needs for survival.

Focusing on facial expressions and body language in both in-person and virtual meetings will help colleagues to identify and read emotions, bearing in mind that emotions are contagious. Our first impression may set the tone for the whole meeting/group as we can quite literally “catch” feelings from others. Being intentional about turning on a camera, starting the meeting with a shared smile and laughter or taking the time to follow up with a colleague who wasn’t quite themselves that day, starts to create emotional openness as well as shared emotional experiences.

Our physical workspace(s) and elements such as office layout, décor and furnishings can indicate a lot about the culture and climate organisations are creating. Is the intention of the space and its usage supporting joyful celebrations or is there are a long list of prescriptive rules sucking all air out of a room, leaving none left for a hearty laugh? Do round tables promote collaboration and unity and invite teams to spend time together?

To conclude, even with the most well-intended display and acknowledgement of emotion we still need to be aware of our remaining biases. Data still highlights a difference in the way emotions are being perceived between genders, BIPOC employees, and LGBTQ+ employees (as, for example, shown in research conducted by sociologist, Adia Wingfield). A display of emotions such as anger, sadness and frustrations are judged much harder when shown by a woman than by a man. Seeing a woman cry at work can be seen as weak or unprofessional, whilst seeing a man crying is more likely to be interpreted as an overload with external factors. Men exhibiting anger are deemed to be more capable while women are perceived as inept. Working on our emotional awareness is key when creating and incorporating our emotions into our everyday working life as well as the workplace.

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