Most executives might cringe at the idea of basing their organization off human emotion—or becoming a “business of feelings.” But if they want their company to survive and thrive during the Great Resignation, it’s an idea they should get behind.
While such talk is often put under the “people over profits” category, it’s really about putting people first, which can be done without a hit to the bottom line. In fact, the reverse can be true, made clear by the success of these companies with high levels of employee happiness.
With people stressed out if not totally exhausted by the events of the past two years, companies must acknowledge that their employees’ feelings are affecting their businesses more than ever. And to recognize this fact, they must adjust accordingly. But this shift won’t be easy for executives, most of whom are used to focusing on how employees think and behave in the context of their knowledge work (i.e., innovation, customer emphasis, or team coordination).
To truly put people first, companies must equally emphasize protecting and caring for employees by focusing on how they feel—thereby creating, as Harvard Business Review writers Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill phrase it, a positive emotional culture. That means it’s time to try something different to find and keep good people.
Here are five ways to build positive emotional culture.
Embrace the validity of emotions at work
Requiring that emotions stay at home, tamped down to “get the job done,” is a good way to ensure your emotional culture will be one of suppression rather than joy, fun, shared purpose, compassion, or caring. A team member once told me about his messy divorce years earlier. When it happened, it affected his work and dragged down his team. His boss told him that he had been there before, that things would get better and that he should spend more time with his family. Five years later, my colleague was remarried, happy, and became the beating heart of my organization’s emotional culture. He regularly kept great employees from leaving by showing how much he cared about them.
Make it safe to talk about emotions
Many people spend years learning to protect themselves from mean bosses. So, it’s a tall order to build organizations where everyone feels psychologically safe enough to share vulnerable and personal information. That work should start at the top as executives who model vulnerability give permission to employees to do so themselves. Research on emotional contagion supports this, and it’s something I learned the first time my assistant made some scheduling mistakes. I was matter of fact in talking to her, but there was irritation in my voice. After more mistakes, I re-established psychological safety by saying I was wrong to be irritated. My assistant acknowledged that knowing how I might react was actually causing more mistakes. After that talk, the mistakes have been remarkably low.
Ask for help when communicating
Leaders need to be careful about how others might perceive their words. I sometimes ask a colleague or two to review important all-staff communications before I send them, because they provide great perspective about tone, word choice and intent.
Recently, many of my employees were annoyed that they had to provide detailed information about past medical procedures as part of our process to get new quotes on health insurance. I wrote an email to explain our thinking. But two people who reviewed it said it was defensive, frantic, and missed an opportunity to show we were trying to get the best benefits at the best cost. I edited the email to not invalidate my employees’ emotions.
Put your money where your mouth is
Eventually, to solidify your organization’s positive emotional culture, you might need to more directly support struggling employees. Granting a time-off request to an employee who is seeking therapy, or helping them find or pay for it, are ways to help. We all have business goals to meet, but we can’t meet them if our employees leave or are distracted. So, it can be smart to make a short-term financial investment to help a person in a tough moment.
Model behaviors as a leaders
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors of a new study by Mind Share Partners emphasize how recent events have been especially hard on leaders, “C-level and executive respondents were…more likely than others to report at least one mental health symptom. Let’s finally put the stigma to rest and admit that mental health challenges affect us all.”
I actually came around to this perspective a few years ago. My employer paid me to join a peer advisory group, Vistage, where I was encouraged to seek professional therapy because I was constantly annoyed and unhappy at non-stop work fires. Years later, I am calmer, happier, and can be open and patient with others’ feelings because I am more comfortable with myself. Creating a positive emotional culture starts with you facing your own emotional hang-ups and then modeling behaviors you want to see.
These all might be considerations that executives a generation or two ago (or even a year or two ago) would have shrugged off. But we don’t have that luxury anymore. In the “people over profits” era, business leaders have to pay more than lip service, and at the very least, rethink how we handle employees’ feelings. That might be the best way to create greater profits as well as a legacy of positively impacting employee well-being.
Ethan Karp is an expert in transforming companies and communities. As CEO and president of nonprofit consulting group MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, he has helped hundreds of companies grow through technology, innovation, and talent.