The Heart of the Matter: Emotions in the Employee Experience

By: Christina Zurek
Four different employees with different emotions on their faces at work
Last month we explored how social psychology impacts employee engagement, and the critical role identity benefits play in fostering employee loyalty and driving engagement.
I’d like to shift our focus this month to emotional benefits—or the way people want to feel day-to-day when working.

The Widespread Impact of Positive and Negative Emotions

Worker sentiment and the impact of emotion—both positive and negative—in the workplace is a well-researched aspect of organizational culture. But it can also be one of the hardest facets of the employee experience for employers to manage.
Most companies tend to focus on cognitive culture—“the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that serve as a guide for the group to thrive”—and forget about (or forgo) emotional culture—“the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing.” The reasons vary, but often, it’s simply that emotion can be an uncomfortable topic for organizational leaders to both address and reinforce.
This avoidance has serious implications—both for individuals and for organizations as a whole. When business leaders shy from discussing emotions, it’s been shown to result in a high cost to their companies. If they don’t know how to adequately respond to individual team member emotions (especially unfavorable emotions), it can create a widespread cultural impact that drives detrimental outcomes like increased absenteeism, poor financial performance, decreased employee satisfaction, increased burnout and a lack of teamwork.
Why? Because when businesses ignore emotional culture, they overlook a fundamental part of being human.

Today, it takes both positive and negative emotional insight for organizations and individuals to function effectively over the long term.

Negative emotions, it turns out, not only punctuate obstacles but also unleash opportunities. Those emotions can provide feedback that broadens thinking and perspectives, which enables people to see things as they are, rather than as them seem.

Emotional Culture as a Driver of Employee Engagement

Our previous post noted findings from recently completed research we did with CMB that delved in to identity benefits, which were found to be the top driver of employee engagement. Emotional culture was another factor we evaluated in this research project and it was found to be the second most important driver of engagement.
The way we accounted for emotional culture in our research was through emotional benefits. For us, this was about evaluating the typical workday feelings (both positive and negative) that employees have.
Our approach to measuring this captured valence (i.e., how good or how bad the emotion was) as well as activation (i.e., how strongly the emotion was felt). The results revealed some interesting trends:
Executives tend to experience greater volatility – We see the greatest degree of volatility—meaning the highest positive emotions and the highest negative emotions—from executive-level respondents. This isn’t entirely surprising given the pressure involved in a position of that level.
Emotions tend to regulate with tenure – As you can see in the Emotional Benefits Over Time graph below, positive (and negative) emotions are particularly high during the first year, with a sustained dip in both during the first several years of tenure.
Emotional Benefits Over Time line graph
But over time, emotions tend to regulate, with increases in positive emotions and decreases in reported negative emotions.
This is likely due in part to turnover in those individuals early in their tenure who may have felt high levels of negative emotion. However, it’s not reasonable to expect that all of those people should turnover. We believe that organizations can do more to help improve emotional culture during those early years in the employee journey to better engage and retain talent.
Significant room for improvement exists – There is still so much that can and should be done for today’s workforce. Of the nearly 1,500 people surveyed nearly a fifth (17%) reported feeling unnoticed and overlooked; less than a quarter (23%) reported feeling connected, understood or in-tune with other people, or supported or empowered (25%); and fewer than a third (30%) felt respected, valued or appreciated. With responses like these, it’s understandable why we see the retention and engagement challenges we do when, on a day-to-day basis, people are feeling undervalued, disconnected and unsupported.

Supporting Your Organization’s Emotional Culture

The Role of Leaders
It’s easy for leaders to think that emotional issues are due to just an “off day” or brush them aside because they’re uncomfortable addressing them, but the costs of not dealing with these problems can be far greater. The extra moments you spend paying attention to emotions in the workplace, considering the emotional impact of the decisions you make, listening to your employees, helping them resolve whatever issue they are dealing with, and dissipating or absorbing the negative emotions they experience can help reduce the number of emotional issues in the workplace and improve the broader emotional culture of your organization.
We’re human, and—for good or bad—with that condition comes emotions. These emotions can be due to work but also bleed in to work from personal struggles. People can’t just turn them off because they’ve punched the clock for the day.

As a leader, help your team understand it’s OK for them to have—and important for them to feel—moments of sadness, frustration and even anger when they are in them.

Feel empowered to demonstrate authenticity and genuine emotion when you need to, too. But make sure you’re also helping your team see positive, productive ways they can process and cope with these emotions. This can help employees learn to work through those feelings better. The key is to monitor how often those emotions are surfacing so that you can attend to emerging larger issues in a timely manner.

Communication Coaching to Avoid Pitfalls
Delivering a strong potentially emotional message can be tricky—and more stressful—than you might imagine. That’s because even under the best circumstances, there’s that chance the receiver will misunderstand your message or tone, which can, at best, disrupt the purpose of the message and, at worst, create animosity between those involved.
To minimize the stress and potential risk of this type of situation, teach people how to tailor and clarify their communication delivery so they can cut down on possible misunderstandings. It can be a valuable effort to offer organization-wide communication coaching to help boost levels of emotional intelligence across the workforce.
Create Meaningful Interactions
Finally, when people feel more connected to their peers, they’re more likely to feel psychological safety and willingness to open up when struggling. Look for ways to create more social connection across your organization that can boost positive emotions.
Need some ideas? Check out our ebook, Fostering Human Connections in the Workplace.
Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.