Where corporate culture goes wrong

In 2016 I stumbled across a Harvard Business Review article aptly named Manage your emotional culture. Up until this point, my work had involved helping organisations define and change their culture. A lot of my work involved defining an organisation's purpose, vision and values and then helping them 'roll them out’ internally.

But I'd grown tired and cynical of a lot of this work. I was both cynical of the effectiveness of this type of work. Plus I was increasingly pessimistic on behalf the people within my client's organisations. Every time we rolled out a new set of values I heard and saw the same reactions – this is just corporate and management mumbo jumbo. The work we were doing was making grandiose statements about an organisation's aspirational values and then making them look pretty in various formats within the office environment. All the while, nothing was changing internally.

I certainly wasn’t helping change the beliefs and behaviours of people and leaders within the organisations I was working with. I was claiming to help improve the cultures of organisations. But for many of my client’s, it was a box-ticking exercise. They needed a set of values because they were told that’s what you did to 'change' the culture. Somehow this belief perpetuates that culture change starts with a refresh of your values and the creation of a 60-slide (Netflix esk) culture deck.

Everything changed for me when I read Mandy O'Neill and Sigal Barsade’s research on emotions in the workplace. The article Manage your emotional culture has become a seminal piece of work for me. It's helped shape my view of workplace culture and culture change. It’s given me hope. This one line in this article that stopped me in my tracks:   

"Most companies pay little attention to how employees are—or should be—feeling. They don’t realise how central emotions are to building the right culture.”

In the famous words of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire…."you had me at…Most companies

Suddenly I felt I'd found the missing piece to the puzzle.

In none of my work or the work of the people I was following in the ‘culture’ space, were people discussing the influence emotion has on the culture of organisations. I was surrounded by consultants and agencies selling culture projects to organisations with the promise of solving all their woes by working with them to identify and embed their core values.

O’Neill and Barsade went on to write:

"When people talk about corporate culture, they’re typically referring to cognitive culture: the shared intellectual values, norms, artefacts, and assumptions that serve as a guide for the group to thrive. Cognitive culture sets the tone for how employees think and behave at work—for instance, how customer-focused, innovative, team-oriented, or competitive they are or should be.”

Their description of cognitive culture described the work I had been doing. It was the work I see so many leaders and organisations go through. Leaders (through no fault of their own) have become obsessed with the cognitive culture of their organisations. They then wondered why nothing really changes.

I got really excited when O’Neill and Barsade suggested what was on the flip side of cognitive culture:

"Cognitive culture is undeniably important to an organization’s success. But it’s only part of the story. The other critical part is what we call the group’s emotional culture: the shared affective values, norms, artefacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing. 

By this stage, I was already emotionally attached to every word on the page. But then they hit me with the rationale evidence:

"Countless empirical studies show the significant impact of emotions on how people perform on tasks, how engaged and creative they are, how committed they are to their organizations, and how they make decisions. In our research over the past decade, we have found that emotional culture influences employee satisfaction, burnout, teamwork, and even hard measures such as financial performance and absenteeism.”

Until this point in time. I had been talking about culture and culture change purely from a cognitive culture perspective. But I had just realised I'd only been doing half the job. I was only telling people half the story. And then wondering why the ending in the story was rarely a successful one where we had truly impacted the culture of an organisation and changed the behaviours of people and how they work together.

However, typical responses to the story I now tell about the importance of emotions to the culture of an organisation are; "the workplace is no place for emotions”, "we should remove emotion from business”. But this is misguided. You can’t escape emotions. The science of human behaviour shows us emotion drives behaviour. So when we fail to recognise emotion, we will fail to effectively influence the behaviour of our people and the culture of our organisation.

O’Neill and Barsade sum this up it up beautifully when they say:

“Some executives and employees have told us that their organizations lack emotion altogether. But every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression. By not only allowing emotions into the workplace but also understanding and consciously shaping them, leaders can better motivate their employees.”

Almost three years on from discovering the work of O'Neill and Barsade, I now find myself at the start of what I feel is an evolution of the way organisations talk about and approach the culture of their organisations. I meet more and more curious leaders open to these conversations. The challenge is how we help leaders and our people to have these conversations.

This is where The Emotional Culture Deck comes in. I created this simple game to facilitate conversations about what really matters in the workplace – how our people are and should be feeling at work. This is the foundation of workplace culture. 

One of the exciting and unexpected by-products of designing The Emotional Culture Deck is I’m now having more and more conversations about well being in the workplace. I never imagined being on the path I’m on – working with leaders to support their people in such a meaningful way. I’ve now got renewed hope for organisations and the workplace.  

If you’re a curious leader, who's interested to find out more about how you design a more human, empathetic and successful workplace, drop me a line.

Jeremy Dean
Founder & Director of riders&elephants

PS. Click here to check out the HBR article Manage your emotional culture here: