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Creating a Positive Emotional Culture: Why Does it Matter and What Can Communication Leaders Do?

In an increasingly tech-driven business environment, many discussions have centered on new technology, innovation, and the resultant efficiency and productivity in the workplace. Conversations seem to have drifted slightly away from the “soft” aspect, what is underneath the “hard” assets, or the “wine” in the bottle: people and emotions.

People create culture and are influenced by culture. Like it or not, employees experience and somewhat show emotions at work. An emotional culture exists in the organization irrespective of whether it is brought into cognizance by its leaders and managers. Emotional culture, unlike a cognitive one (i.e., a set of values, beliefs, assumptions, and symbol that define how organizational members think and behave), emphasizes how employees feel. Emotional culture is defined as “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” (Barsade & O’Neill,2016). In a strong emotional culture, for instance, a culture of joy, employees can not only genuinely experience happiness, delight, and excitement themselves at work; they also feel the emotions that their coworkers experience (because emotions are contagious) and internalize these emotions as their own. Even if some employees do not feel the same emotion as the majority, they tend to engage in “norm compliance” to meet the group expectation. This is what Barsade and O’Neil called “feeling mechanism” and “normative enactments.” The end outcome is kind of collective feelings and an emotional climate infused within the organization.

In a previous blog via the Institute for Public Relations’ (IPR) Organizational Communication Research Center, I shared my previous study with my doctoral advisee, Katy Robinson, which showed a positive emotional culture of companionate love and joy can meet employees’ psychological needs for care, mutual respect, and connections, resulting in quality employee relational outcomes (i.e., trust, satisfaction, commitment, and sense of shared control). By contrast, a negative emotional culture of sadness and fear hinders such relationship development. In short, the way employees feel in the organization affects their attitudes toward/relationship with the organization. Then, I started to wonder, does emotional culture affect employee behaviors in the same manner? If so, what should communication leaders do?

My recent co-authored research with doctoral student, April Yue, at the University of Florida taps into this problem. In particular, we were interested in how positive emotional culture in the organization, characterized by companionate love, joy, pride, and gratitude, influences employee supportive behaviors, including internal organizational citizenship behavior (OCB, e.g., voluntary helping and discretionary efforts) and external advocacy behavior (e.g., positive communications and defending). Although internal OCB has been linked to employee engagement, organizational performance, and effectiveness in the literature, employee advocacy is believed to influence organizational reputation and image, particularly considering the increasingly salient role of employee ambassadorship in the digital era. Another focus of the study was to investigate whether and how strategic internal communications, both at the corporate and leadership levels, can help create a positive emotional culture in the organization.

To address these questions, we conducted an online survey of 506 employees (with 53.6 percent non-management and 46.4 percent management employees) who worked in 19 diverse industry sectors in the United States. Results showed the following:

  • A positive emotional culture strongly influences employee OCB and advocacy behavior. When an organization’s atmosphere or climate is characterized by compassion, caring, tenderness for others, joy, delight, a sense of pride, and appreciation, employees are likely to demonstrate discretionary behaviors inside their organization and advocate and support their organization in front of external members.
  • Both symmetrical corporate and responsive leadership communications help in creating a positive emotional culture. In particular, when organizations’ communication system is two-way and employee-centered; emphasizes listening, reciprocity, and feedback; and values employees’ voice and inputs, a positive emotional culture of companionate love, joy, pride, and gratitude is likely nurtured. Likewise, when leaders at different levels communicate in a responsive, friendly, warm, compassionate, and caring manner, a culture of love, joy, pride, and gratitude is likely to develop. Although both are important, corporate communication has a stronger influence on the positive emotional culture than leadership communication.
  • Two-way, employee-centered corporate communication also promotes employee OCB and advocacy behavior. Corporate communication plays an equally important role in fostering employee OCB as the positive emotional culture. When employees engage in discretionary activities (e.g., volunteering and helping) internally, they also tend to advocate for the organization externally. Strategic corporate communication and positive emotional culture were proven to be two driving forces for supportive employee behaviors.

Now comes the so-what question: What can communication leaders benefit from these findings? Emotional culture matter! Organizations should!

  • Recognize and understand the important role of emotional culture in fostering positive employee attitudes and generating supportive employee behaviors;
  • Not only care about employees’ emotional well-being but also invest resources in cultivating an emotional culture infused with positive emotions of companionate love, joy, pride, and gratitude.
  • Positive emotional culture can be shaped through strategic internal communications. Leaders and communication managers should
  • Adopt an employee-centered communication mindset and system that are two-way and dialogic; value listening, feedback, employee voice, and participation; and show genuine care for employees’ interests and feelings;
  • Promote a responsive, caring, compassionate, warm, and friendly leadership communication style in day-to-day interactions across the organization;
  • Walk the talk by expressing positive emotions proactively, such as joy, pride, gratitude, and companionate love, which not only create a positive emotional culture but also show the genuine, authentic, human side of the leader. Douglas Conant wrote over 30,000 handwritten thank-you notes to employees and clients during his tenure of leadership at Campbell Soup. Mark Zuckerberg challenged himself to write one thank-you note every day in celebration of Facebook’s 10th anniversary in 2014. These cases are all notable examples of leadership gestures of building a culture of gratitude.
  • Utilize “high-touch” communication channels beyond high-tech media. As Sherry Scott, president of Gagen MacDonald and contributing editor of IPR’s Organizational Communication Research Center, noted, to manage outreach and build requisite trust effectively, leaders need to “humanize the message and the messenger through high-touch communication strategies…,” as “trust is built on human connections, not technology” (Scott, 2018). Despite the numerous benefits that come with workplace technologies, such as enterprise social media, the advantage of high-touch face-to-face channels in communicating complex emotions cannot be replaced.
  • Foster collaboration among leaders at all levels, communication, and human resource managers to design and implement a system, work environment, and communication programs that acknowledge and respect emotions and reinforce the manifestation of positive emotional culture.

At the beginning of the year, Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, Inc., discussed the importance of having high LQ (“the IQ of love”) for a successful leader. According to Ma, new technologies such as AI will replace numerous jobs in the future, but love is something that “machines never have.” Emotions are what make humans human. Organizations and leaders should understand emotions, respect emotions, and lead and communicate in a way that allows employees to feel their feelings are respected and cared for. Importantly, they should harness, influence, and shape a positive emotional culture that fuels employee well-being and organizational effectiveness. In fact, regardless of how developed, advanced, or fancy the technologies or tools are (e.g., social media, big data, VR/AR, AI), what truly make a difference in the organization are the people, who are “creatures of emotion.”

Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the chief research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. 

This article originally appeared on the IPR Blog on Aug. 13, 2018.

Posted: June 17, 2019
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