Workplace Culture

Guidance for Managing Your Team’s Emotional Climate

Great teams start with great leaders who give their team clarity of purpose, use intrinsic motivation as a primary motivator, and consider people’s personal work styles. Great Leaders provide an atmosphere where people can build quality relationships and engage in meaningful work. They encourage fun, collaboration, honest mutual feedback, and hold people accountable to get stuff done.

The bedrock of these behaviours can be found in a team’s emotion norms: how team members expect each other to respond emotionally to various events. Emotion norms are so foundational that sometimes the best intervention is aimed directly at them, which is exactly what a gas plant division of Petro Canada did after a wave of accidents, some of which were fatal. Rather than remind people of their purpose, reinforce safety regulations, or provide feedback, they made a small tweak in the emotion norms of their team. They sent them to a training on feelings in the workplace where facilitators taught them to look out for each other, care for each other’s emotional state, and check in with each other. If someone was not having a good day they needed to be able to say, “I don’t think I can work with you today.” It worked. Accident rates at Petro Canada significantly decreased.

While not every team experiences fatal accidents, they all have emotion norms. Emotion norms are determined by a complex set of variables: the organization’s history, management style, the industry the workplace is involved in, the type of people attracted to the work, and the emotion styles of the individuals working together.

At ACHIEVE, we’ve noticed that emotion norms answer three important questions:

1. How do I increase emotional warmth? Emotion norms show workers how connected they’re supposed to be when they greet people at the beginning of a shift, and how revealing they’re supposed to be when asked how they’re doing. This was the emotion norm that Petro Canada adjusted by turning up their emotional warmth.

To increase emotional warmth, you must regularly provide space for people to know how everyone’s doing. If you’re a leader, do this by simply asking, or by establishing a daily team ‘huddle’ that includes a check-in where everyone gives an update. If an update is too impersonal – the updater talks about their work, but nothing about how they are doing – follow up with a brief personal question.
On the other hand, some teams have too much warmth, causing employees to forget their tasks as they check in with each other. If that’s the case, ask your team, “How much do we need to know about each other to help out with work issues when needed? What structures should we set in place so we reduce the amount of time talking and get to work?”

2. Can I be grumpy?
At the beginning of every workday at Wal-Mart, employees huddle and do the Wal-Mart cheer. My brothers-in-law own a couple of Fatburger restaurants where team members are taught to high-five each other. Positivity and friendliness are not just encouraged, they are institutionalized. On the other side of this spectrum, when facilitating my municipality’s foremanship training program, I was confronted by workers who looked on positive feelings at work as a complete betrayal of the truth that they had been pushed around by their employer. Positive, hopeful feelings were considered naive and not to be trusted. They reminded me of the American autoworkers who anonymously sabotage cars to express their feelings of dehumanization – and encourage others to do the same.

If you need to improve the positive emotions on your team, remember that emotions are infectious: smile more often, give more compliments, and celebrate successes more frequently. Post positive comment cards on the wall and bring in happy customers to have them share how your organization’s work has helped them. Do things together as a team, including working on projects together in open spaces. People are happier when they see others throughout the day.

Although it’s good to incorporate friendliness into the workplace, requiring employees to express positive feelings without giving room for normal human experience can lead to something called emotion exhaustion. I’m reminded of a friend who quit her job as a waitress, not because she had to smile, but because she had to smile after being yelled at in the kitchen. It’s smart to ask your employees to smile at customers, but it’s difficult for them to do that if you haven’t given them a good reason to smile. Granted, they are getting paid to work, but if you give them a reason to smile, you’ll keep them longer.

3. If I’m unhappy with something, who can I tell? We’ve talked in this blog before about Honest Mutual Feedback (HMF) and how the ability to be honest with fellow staff – and your superiors – is crucial to the success of your mission. Unfortunately, there are many workplaces where it’s normal to express dissatisfaction with a co-worker, but not with a superior. As a result, supervisors, while expected to make the most important decisions, have less knowledge than the rest of the team about what is going well and what isn’t. As a result, the leader makes ill-informed decisions, the team grumbles even more, and the leader doesn’t know what the problem is.

Part of the issue is that on some teams, the way I’m expected to interact with the leader is similar to how I’m expected to interact with my customers: smiling and serving. While this doesn’t negate the possibility of HMF, it breeds an atmosphere where HMF is unlikely to happen.

Phil Geldart, CEO of the Eagle’s Flight training organization, has a simple solution: “I can tell you in five minutes how to be a better manager. Take each of your staff out for lunch once a month, and ask them, ‘How can I lead you better?'” In the relational atmosphere of lunch, people feel safe to provide HMF up the ladder.

Give some thought to the emotion norms of your team and consider whether you want people to be warmer or colder to each other. Do you want them to be happier when relating to customers? Do people feel free to express their concerns to leaders? As Petro Canada discovered, you may find that a few tweaks change your stats for the better.


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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