From early on in their careers, people are often taught to put emotions to one side when dealing with colleagues. Feelings of frustration, disappointment or even anger are discouraged by leaders who want a harmonious workplace with no disruptions. But new research suggests that encouraging people to bottle up their emotions – whether good or bad – can hinder them and their organisation.
Michael Parke, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, believes organisations with workers who feel comfortable and safe about expressing their true feelings tend to be more productive, innovative and creative. His paper ‘The Role of Affect Climate in Organizational Effectiveness’ explores how preventing staff from saying what’s really on their mind can stop companies from achieving their strategic goals.
“What emotions and experiences are allowed, encouraged and supported and how does this impact an organisation’s strategic priorities such as innovation?” Dr Parke says. “When people are invested in their jobs, they can get upset or frustrated with things but they should be able to share those emotions so it doesn’t stymie their work or creativity.”
The research carried out with Myeong-Gu Seo, Associate Professor of Management and Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, looks at ‘emotion climates’ – the shared perception that employees have of their workplace based on its processes, structure and culture – and the emotional behaviours they engender.
When carrying out the study, Dr Parke and Dr Seo assessed several businesses from a range of sectors and interviewed managers at a leading technology company. They came up with four positive traits found in organisations where people are encouraged to be open and honest about their emotions:
Dr Parke’s research also proposes that leaders are one of the main driving forces when it comes to establishing such a climate.
“As a leader, the first thing you need to do is to assess what type of emotion climate you have – and to be honest about it. You can do that through surveys or by observing people’s emotional responses at work,” Dr Parke says. “Are there smiles on people’s faces or do they seem more serious? Do your team members look like they’re holding back their feelings? If they are, you may have a different type of climate than one where people feel they can share their authentic feelings.
“Another way to find out how people feel is to ask them directly,” he adds. “Do they feel comfortable about sharing their emotions at work or would they rather hold back? That information will help you diagnose the type of emotion climate your organisation has.”
Developing an environment where people can express themselves freely isn’t easy. First, it’s time consuming for leaders who are busy enough managing people, budgets, operations and projects. Second, some bosses decide against creating an authentic emotion climate because it’s not a strategic objective. Third, it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. “The hardest workplace climate to develop is one where positive and negative emotions are welcome,” Dr Parke says.
Some managers struggle to develop an authentic environment because they don’t like dealing with emotionally-charged conflicts. “They feel uncomfortable when people in the team express negative emotions or their tone is one of frustration or anger,” Dr Parke adds. “The problem is that the boss may avoid or suppress someone’s feelings by not dealing with the situation; as a result, their attempt to establish an open emotion climate loses credibility.”
Getting people to feel comfortable when an emotionally charged colleague rants or raves is also tricky. “If someone loses their temper or becomes extremely frustrated, their temperament could become an issue for others in a team where people aren’t encouraged to be genuine,” Dr Parke says. “But the nice thing about an authentic emotion climate is that members can share their true feelings and work through them with their colleagues, which usually leads to stronger relations.
“The problem is when people don’t feel comfortable about expressing their true emotions, which can lead to anger and unresolved conflicts. This is what you often find in a ‘display climate’, where people fake smiles or warmth and aren’t being honest about how they truly feel.”
Display climates can develop when the management want people to seem happy, but don’t really care whether or not they are. “Leaders in these organisations want authentic smiles and positive emotions, but they’re not willing to put the work in to make sure their employees are genuinely happy,” Dr Parke says.
Airline cabin crew can exhibit the behaviours associated with a display climate. While appearing welcoming and jolly when dealing with passengers, they may actually feel fatigued, frustrated or annoyed. However, some customer-focused companies such as Zappos or Southwest Airlines take a different approach. Management at these organisations ensure their employees feel genuinely enthusiastic and excited to be at work, and to share those positive feelings with customers.
“This authentic approach to emotion management often has a dramatic effect,” Dr Parke says, “as businesses with an authentic climate tend to enjoy greater customer satisfaction compared to companies with display climates.”
Encouraging people to hide their authentic feelings is detrimental to both employees and the organisation, according to Dr Parke. “It’s draining to supress feelings because it prevents you from being your authentic self,” he says. “You spend time trying to control and regulate your emotions rather than doing your work, which can lead to lower motivation and productivity.”
He adds that failing to be honest when concerned about a particular project or piece of work, for example, can lead to a poor outcome. “When giving someone feedback to help them improve, you may soften your delivery to avoid hurting their feelings. But expressing your true feelings about their work can be a positive – it can lead to a conversation where you may highlight an issue about a product or service that needs addressing.”
Telling workers that it’s ok to express their emotions is one thing. But leaders may also want to set the parameters for how and when people open up at work, according to Dr Parke. “If there are worries or frustrations about strategy or objectives, it’s completely appropriate to have a team discussion about them,” he says.
A different approach may be needed if someone is clearly unhappy about something but hasn’t raised the issue. Dr Parke says: “If you sense someone has a problem, it’s best to take them aside for a one-to-one as they may not feel comfortable about discussing the matter in front of their colleagues.”
Leaders looking for inspiration should study organisations that have made strides in establishing an authentic emotion climate, such as asset management firm Bridgewater Associates; Google; Zappos, the online shoes and clothing retailer; and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s.
When studying these companies, Dr Parke found their executives use many leadership and organisational practices to draw positive outcomes from authentic emotional experiences. They also use them to prevent the harmful effects that feelings can have on someone’s effectiveness. For example, Bridgewater employees can log any negative emotions they experience at work using a ‘pain button’ app on their iPads. They then have the opportunity for follow-up conversations with colleagues to address and resolve any negative emotions.
The lesson leaders can take from these highly successful companies is simple: an authentic emotion climate pays dividends.
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