Power of emotions in organizational culture
A recent study by Gallup found that 60% of the millennials (those born between 1980 and the mid-1990s) are open to a different job opportunity than their present one. Only 29% of the millennials are really committed to their job and the organization they work for. Millennials are expected to hold 15-20 different jobs in the course of their working life.
For many of the previous generation, jobs for life was the norm. Some of them even had the name of their organization as part of their unofficial name. As those born in the 21st century become part of the workforce, the critical question will be how to build a strong relationship between an employee and the organization they work for.
Many management experts made us believe that a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) and a shared value system are the best drivers for creating a sense of purpose within an organization. Beautifully worded memos, training programmes at exotic holiday destinations and large posters plastered all around the office proclaim the new audacious goals, vision, and values. But the truth is that despite all these efforts, employees will go about their jobs with the same old behaviour, right under those well-designed posters.
The traditional view of human behaviour is that humans are rational beings. So it was believed that clear goals and an attractive compensation structure linked to those goals will not only attract good talent but also keep them engaged. But the learning from new fields such as cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics provides us a vastly different perspective about human behaviour. Recent studies of the human brain show that emotions are integral to all humans decisions. Emotions are the fuel that drive all human behaviour.
A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Manage Your Emotional Culture” by Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill, reinforces the importance of emotions in organizational culture-building. According to them, when most organizational behaviour experts talk about corporate culture, they are talking about cognitive culture. They don’t realize how central emotions are to building a right organizational culture.
How do we build an organizational culture based strongly on emotions?
According to Barsade and O’Neill, every organization has an emotional culture, even if it is suppressed. So the first step in building a strong emotional culture is to understand the existing emotions within the organization. This is easier said than done. Brain studies inform us that emotions are generated at a non-conscious level and that the conscious brain is aware only after the emotions have been generated. So trying to understand emotions by research techniques that decipher one’s conscious self is an inefficient process. One needs to have research methodologies capable of diving deep into the non-conscious recesses of the employee.
Every organization has several interaction levels—between the top management and the junior management, between employees at the same level, between employees and the customer, etc. Varied emotions would be at play at each of those interaction levels. These emotions vary depending on organizations.
In the armed forces, the emotion that drives the interaction between a senior and a subordinate is total obedience. The core emotion that drives the relationship between members of an army unit is total trust and camaraderie. It is because of this trust and camaraderie that a soldier is willing to give up his life to save his buddies. The adage in the armed forces, “Ek goli, ek dushman” (one bullet, one enemy) captures the emotions the soldier has towards his enemy.
Intensifying these emotions at each of those interaction levels is at the core of not just the training programmes in the armed forces but the very conduct of the armed forces.
Many organizations have the wrong emotions at play at various levels. For example, a financial services firm started getting increased customer complaints. Most of those complaints had to do with the malpractices indulged in by the front-line sales staff while dealing with the customers. The analysis showed the front-line sales staff of that organization were aware that what they were doing was illegal. But they did not feel that it was immoral. This organization ideally needs to inculcate the emotion of guilt among its front-line sales staff.
How do we build the appropriate emotions at each interaction level?
Since emotions originate at a non-conscious level, it is not possible to generate emotions at a conscious level. Studies have shown that the conscious brain cannot even activate all facial muscles that are required to create a genuine smile. Off-site training programmes and glossy posters will not help generate those emotions.
Emotions are generated by interventions that act at a non-conscious level of the employee. For example, fresh army cadets being subjected to hazing, almost always at a unit level. An organization that wanted to create a learning culture built its library at a pivotal location and every employee of that organization had a book shelf as part of the workstation.
Another organization that wanted to reduce its stress levels advised its employees to photoshop a photograph of themselves in the holiday destination that they planned to visit and asked them to paste it prominently on their work-desk. These non-conscious interventions go a long way in generating the ideal emotions within the organization.
The 21st century belongs to those organizations that understand the power of human emotions.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.