A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 25, 2019

Why Employee Emotions Aren't Noise, They're Data

The economics of behavior is no longer a source of managerial disdain. As the impact of human capital on financial and operations outcomes has become more pronounced in the digital era, any source of potential competitive advantage is examined for whatever positive impact it can provide.

But the definition of behavior has expanded from Taylor-ite assessments of efficiency to a broader set of inputs which are increasingly detailed. And given the impact of emotion on attitude and performance, it is essential to understand the impact of such influences for any organization wishing to optimize outcomes. JL

MIT Sloan Management Review interviews Sigal Barsade:

Emotions influence business outcomes such as productivity and profitability. Companies that want stronger performance need to invest in understanding what motivates people and pay attention to the emotional side of organizational culture. Emotion predicts work outcomes including absenteeism, teamwork, burnout, satisfaction and performance outcomes like operating costs. In units with stronger emotional cultures, employees were more satisfied, had better teamwork, fewer sick days, more job satisfaction, more commitment, greater personal accountability. The effect was equal for men and women. Team hope trumped team fear.
Although many companies display heightened concern for the well-being of their employees, not everyone is convinced that efforts to create and maintain a positive workplace actually pay off. However, to Sigal Barsade, the evidence is clear: Companies that want more satisfied employees and stronger performance need to invest in understanding what motivates people in their work lives and pay attention to the emotional side of organizational culture.
As an undergraduate at UCLA, Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, considered a career in clinical psychology before determining that she was most interested in having an impact on people’s well-being through organizational behavior. Over the past two decades she has studied a variety of topics, including group affect, emotional contagion, and loneliness in the workplace.
Through her research, Barsade has found that emotions influence not just employee wellness and engagement, but also business outcomes such as productivity and profitability. The findings, she says, have implications for startups and larger organizations alike and are relevant to everyone, from the senior management team to front-line workers. MIT Sloan Management Review correspondent Frieda Klotz spoke with Barsade about her research on the role of emotional culture in organizations. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
MIT Sloan Management Review: Management theorists have been talking about the importance of corporate culture for decades. You focus on what you call emotional culture. How is that different?
Barsade: When we generally speak about organizational culture, we speak about a recognized and acknowledged set of cognitions viewed as important for the group to enact to meet its goals. However, emotional culture is the set of emotions necessary for a group to enact to meet its goals.
But the importance of emotional culture is not just definitional. The type of emotional culture an organization or a department has — for example, whether it’s based on caring, optimism, or anxiety — predicts many important work outcomes, including employee absenteeism, teamwork, burnout, satisfaction, psychological safety, and objective performance outcomes like operating costs.
How did you become interested in examining the emotional part of culture?
Barsade: For a long time, emotions were viewed as noise, a nuisance, something to be ignored. But one thing we now know after more than a quarter-century of research is that emotions are not noise — rather, they are data. They reveal not just how people feel, but also what they think and how they will behave. Emotions are sometimes perceived as illegitimate in the context of work. This is not only unrealistic, it’s a loss for both managers and employees in that they are missing an important lever for improving employee satisfaction and productivity.
What role do managers have in shaping emotional culture, and what can they do to change it?
Barsade: The way emotional culture really gets communicated is nonverbally, in people’s facial expressions, vocal tone, and body language. You see it expressed by the people around you, including — or even most of all — managers. So managers need to lead through their own behavior.
Emotional culture is contagious. My research shows that we catch emotions from the people around us.1 Employees actively look to their leaders to interpret the tea leaves: Are things going well? How is the organization doing? Where do I stand? On top of that, there’s a subconscious part of the process, where workers reflect the emotions of their bosses and managers. Indeed, emotional culture varies much more within than across industries. Why? Because emotional culture reflects the perspective and values of an organization’s leadership, and that can differ at a local level, from team to team. So when I hear about a group suffering from low morale, one of the first things I ask is, What are the leaders like in the morning when they walk in? Are they inquisitive, cheerful, and relaxed? Or do they seem angry and stressed?
When a company is under a lot of pressure, isn’t it asking a lot to expect a manager to be upbeat and cheerful?
Barsade: Experts used to think that not being allowed to express exactly how you felt would lead to burnout and emotional exhaustion. But newer research has shown that it actually depends on which emotion you’re expressing or suppressing. For example, when you amp up positive emotions, you actually have less emotional exhaustion — you kind of fake it ’til you feel it.
And even when it comes to upbeat feelings, managers should think about the kind of emotional culture that will work best for achieving their business goals. Different positive emotions lead to different outcomes. For example, Amy Adler, Paul Bliese, and Walter Sowden, from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and I studied military teams and found that an emotional culture of optimism and pride was more effective for bouncing back from poor performance than an emotional culture of joy and love. This shows that in some contexts you need a particular type of differentiated emotional culture — not just “positive” or “negative.”
What sorts of harm can negative emotional cultures cause?
Barsade: I worked with a company that had a strong emotional culture of fear as well as a moderately strong emotional culture of anger and frustration, and they amplified each other. It was the type of place where no news really was good news. If you did a great job, the way you found out was nobody yelled at you or said you were terrible. The norm was to berate people if things didn’t go well. People were hypervigilant and demoralized.
You’ve written a lot about environments of camaraderie and teamwork. Why is it important for organizations to have employees who care about one another?
Barsade: One of the most common forms of love that we have in human life is something researchers call companionate love. If you want to build a team, it’s emotions like affection, caring, and compassion that really connect people.
Mandy O’Neill of George Mason University and I published a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly in 2014 about how it works in the long-term care industry.2 We found a positive association between stronger emotional cultures of companionate love and clients’ outcomes — it led to happier patients with a better quality of life, fewer trips to the emergency room, and more-satisfied family members. We found that in units with stronger emotional cultures of companionate love, employees were more satisfied and had better teamwork, reduced emotional exhaustion, and fewer sick days.
An emotional culture of companionate love is clearly relevant in health care — but does it really matter elsewhere? To answer this question, we surveyed 3,200 employees in seven industries, including technology, utilities, and finance. Employees who reported being from a stronger culture of companionate love had more job satisfaction, more commitment, and greater personal accountability, and the effect was equally strong for men and women.
Earlier this year you coauthored a paper about startups, with Tori Huang and Vangelis Souitaris of Cass Business School in London, in which you described a simulation that had people competing on teams for a cash prize. The teams were asked to invest their own money in the face of negative results.
Barsade: Yes, the teams had to make the decision about whether to continue investing their money or to quit the venture and lose the actual money they had put in. We found that while fear of losing more money led people to quit, and hope for success led them to continue, when comparing the strength of the two effects, team hope trumped team fear. In other words, a feeling of hope was more important to their decision to escalate commitment to the currently losing venture than fear of failure.
Do you think the same principles would apply to bigger organizations or established businesses launching a new product?
Barsade: Our sample was made up of MBAs and undergrads who were entrepreneurship majors or at least entrepreneurially oriented, so we cannot say the same thing would necessarily happen in a non-entrepreneurial study. But I’m inclined to think it would.
In my view, this finding has broader implications for the role of emotions and emotional culture in how society makes progress. We only advance if people are willing to keep trying. We know that in real-world entrepreneurship, many people fail, but some will succeed. From a collective perspective, it’s that feeling of hope — exhibited by some of the students in my experiment — that pushes us forward.
You focus a lot on the positive outcomes from emotions such as love, joy, and hope. How about negative emotions? Do they provide any value?Barsade: Absolutely. I don’t want to suggest there’s no place for negative emotions. They have a really important protective function — they help highlight problems or the need to fight unfairness, for example, and they are a factor in motivating people to fix troubling situations. But the key thing is the way these emotions get expressed and dealt with. Expressing and feeling negative emotions about particular situations and then moving to resolve them is vital for company success. But I have yet to see any research results indicating a positive outcome from an organization having a systemic strong emotional culture of fear or sadness or anger.
Do you see signs that business leaders are paying more attention to employees’ emotions?
Barsade: Many managers still don’t see emotions as being potentially helpful to them strategically, and few are disciplined about studying or managing them. My colleagues and I think such leaders are missing opportunities to improve their company’s performance and boost employee satisfaction. Thinking more systematically about the influence of emotions at work would be a big step forward.


Post a Comment