Leadership, Emotional Culture, & the F-Word (Feelings!)

Emotions play an important role in everyday behavior. There is no thought, behavior, idea or attitude which does not have a related emotional counterpart.  In business, though, some kinds of emotions are frowned upon. Some people even say emotions do not belong in business. And while some leaders try to ignore negative emotions in the workplace, others see them as a character flaw.

As long as humans are in your company, feelings will always be there. And if you are striving for continuous improvement through employee engagement, then you are counting on it.

Every organization has an “emotional culture.” And like everything else in an organization, the emotional culture is a result of leadership (leadership is cause; all else is effect). How leaders handle negative emotions — in themselves and in others — is key.

Your organization may have an unhealthy emotional culture if:

1. Your best employees fear coming across as ‘negative’.

We like to think we have an open-door policy, that we are open to feedback, and that we value employee engagement. But what if employee engagement means expressing discontent? or frustration? Does your open door policy make room for dissent?

Listen for statements like, “I don’t mean to come across negative…” or “I’m not trying to resist change, but…” — particularly if made by your best employees. It’s also a sign if they ask their supervisor or manager to bring up an issue or express a concern rather than say anything themselves to avoid being perceived as negative. It means they’ve learned that ‘bad things’ happen to people who are perceived as having a negative attitude — even when the concerns they’ve expressed are real and valid.

When you react to the negativity, you miss out on an opportunity to discuss the core issue — and reduce the chance your employees will be forthcoming about other problems or obstacles. Ashleigh Warner explains it this way: “Beneath every behavior is a feeling. And beneath each feeling is a need. And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behavior, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptom.”

2. You are constantly team building to improve morale.

Don’t get me wrong — team building activities can be a helpful intervention. But I start to get concerned when they become the answer to everything. Or when leaders assume that if people know each other more personally, somehow that will make them communicate more effectively. While possible to see short term improvement, unsolved problems will eventually trigger the same old behaviors and you’ll be back where you started.

Morale is most negatively affected by things like constantly overworking people, playing the blame game, lack of praise, frequent threats of job loss, and lack of development opportunities. None of these are solved by fun games or trust falls. If you have certain corporate events that are always part of your calendar, or promote department outings as a part of your culture, keep doing that. But don’t expect those outings to solve your most persistent issues.

3. Problems persist.

When employees “go along to get along,” you miss out on the kind of discourse you need to solve your most persistent problems. Getting to the root cause means discussion and debate. Instead, people settle. Problems persist when the root cause is not addressed.

It can seem like people are engaged — acting positively, offering ideas, being respectful of each other. But “engaged” also means frustration, debating, and disagreeing. The trick to healthy conflict is to be fighting “for” something, not “with” each other. This means you need context, starting with a vision, and structure to guide the problem solving process. Make sure the problem is well-defined, that roles are clear (including lines of authority), and show clear boundaries. When goals, roles and rules are clear, you have a better shot at reaching a solution that goes beyond treating symptoms.

In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember that feelings come from inside of us, triggered by external events. Emotions are information — about who we have been and how we think about ourselves, others, and the world. A healthy emotional culture starts with leaders who study and understand their own feelings, triggers, and reactions. Your organization is what you practice consistently. Do you practice open-mindedness or passing judgment? Engage in heated discussions or strive to keep the peace at all costs? Do you value transparency and vulnerability enough to rumble with its more negative aspects?

Remember, there is no thought, behavior, idea or attitude which does not have a related emotional counterpart. For leaders, that means we need to embrace all feelings in the workplace — not just the ones we like.  Feelings are chocked full of information about who you think you are — and how your employees think about themselves and the world.  How you think about yourself and the world drives behavior.

Some first steps in embracing feelings in the workplace:

1 – Get curious.  Get curious about your own feelings, with emphasis on those that you learned were better or worse than others.  Watch your own reactions to others who express emotion and watch for where you have judgment about their feelings or about them. 

2 – Check assumptions. All situations are neutral until you give them meaning; you give situations meaning based on your feelings. Feelings are “triggered” by external events as we connect current experience with our beliefs.  Beliefs are created over time based on experiences.  Look for what you “make up” about an experience based on how you feel. 

3 – Examine triggers. What trips your trigger for anger? for joy? for other feelings? What triggers you to fight or to flee? As you identify the triggers, they’ll have less hold over you — be less “trippy” — and you’ll have access  to more choices for how you want to react.

Feelings are designed to work on our behalf.  They serve a purpose by providing valuable information.  Embracing emotions and working with them is the only path to a healthy emotional culture — and key to  successful organizational change. 

(PS – If this is something you or your organization wrestles with, we can help.)(PPS -Think you don’t have feelings? Read this: An Open Letter to the Tin Man)

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Susan LaCasse

Susan brings 25 years experience in driving change in a variety of project and leadership roles. Common to these roles were leadership development, process improvement and change management.

Susan is a student of human behavior, constantly seeking the latest in theories and tools. She also understands how organizations work. Together, she uses this combination to help her clients create positive, lasting change. Susan is a unique combination of coach, catalyst and trusted adviser.


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