Engagement

Do Emotions Belong In The Workplace?

Do Emotions Belong in the Workplace
Written by Lenny DeFranco

Knowledge workers care about what they do for a living. They can’t help it. A job in the knowledge economy requires years of education, innate talents, and a lot of an employee’s time. It’s not just button-pushing. Asked to bring their whole selves to the job, modern knowledge workers crave work that engages their whole selves—including their emotions.

Problem is, emotionality is still an uncomfortable topic in today’s corporate culture. Managers struggle with the question: does employee engagement and cultural alignment require an emotional dimension? Do companies need to think about messy, irrational human emotions like happiness, love, and dejection? Do emotions even belong in the workplace?

In a previous era, many jobs didn't require employees to engage on a level that would pique their emotions.

In a previous era, fewer jobs required employees to engage on a level that would involve their emotions.

Traditionally, the answer has been no. Prevailing wisdom has long held that employees should keep emotions at bay as much as possible. Positive energizers like pride, ambition, and enthusiasm have always been permitted, but not the more melancholy feelings that threaten to complicate one’s thinking.

And in a now-bygone era of phone operators and factory workers, maybe emotions truly didn’t matter that much. Maybe employees back then could clock in, perform rotely, and clock out without tapping into their inner lives. Or maybe it’s just that there’s never been a tidy way to confront workplace emotions. In any event, job love was not typically a managerial responsibility.

In the modern workforce, it is. Today’s knowledge economy demands uniquely human skills like creativity, problem solving, and deep analytic thinking. And the humans who are doing this work come with a lot of baggage. You can’t mix ideas and egos together in any setting without emotions coming out as a side product. These feelings may have traditionally been shunned from the office, but they can’t be kept out any longer. Today, they need to be harnessed. Many managers, unfortunately, don’t know how to adapt.

People do better work when they are happy, have positive views of their organization and its people, and are motivated primarily by the work itself.Click To Tweet
Studying engagement while married: Amabile & Kramer

Married and considering engagement: the team of Amabile & Kramer

Psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer are out to change that. The question of how best to engage people and inspire innovation drove the researchers to launch a major study examining the role of emotions and team dynamics on work output. Their efforts culminated in 2011’s The Progress Principle, a book that presented the duo’s findings in the context of their theory of employee engagement. Over the course of about five months and thousands of detailed questionnaires, the researchers arrived at a simple yet revolutionary idea—that employees are people and must be treated like people.

More specifically, they came up with the “progress principle,” which holds that “of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is making progress in meaningful work.”

“Inner work life” is Amabile and Kramer’s term for the collection of feelings every employee has about work: their career, their coworkers, the environment in which they operate—the whole experience. In the book, the researchers demonstrate that these feelings directly impact the quality of work an employee does. Poor inner work life leads to poor performance, checked-out employees, and even enmity among colleagues. Good inner work life means that everyone feels valued, empowered, and motivated to collaborate. “Promoting positive inner work life doesn’t only make people feel better; it also leads people to do better work,” the researchers say.

Good managers don't ignore employee emotions; they nourish them to drive better work.

Good managers don’t ignore employee emotions; they nourish them to drive better work.

“Emotions” is one of the three components of inner work life—the factors that determine how we relate personally to our work. (“Perception” and “motivation” are the other two.) Each of these components has its own set of catalysts and inhibitors, the single most powerful of which is the feeling of progress on something the employee considers worthwhile. The size and nature of the accomplishment doesn’t matter. Engagement stems from the simple fact of being successful and being valued.

The Progress Principle proves that emotions play an irreducible role in employee engagement, and that job love is the key to high performance. “People do better work when they are happy, have positive views of their organization and its people, and are motivated primarily by the work itself,” the authors write. Positive emotions are found to result in 50% more creative thoughts, better decision-making, and higher intrinsic motivation. Amabile and Kramer encourage organizations to nourish this culture of job love in a variety of ways—everything from teaching managers to care for employee needs to offering effective learning: “Getting the right sort of help, from the right people, at the right time, can give a significant boost to inner work life.”

Managers may not yet be widely comfortable dealing with the innermost emotions of their employees, but it’s time they got used to it. As technology increasingly automates away the emotionless work of rote functions and menial labor, humanity itself will contribute to the bottom line more than ever before. Amabile and Kramer put it best: “People often say, ‘It’s business, it’s not personal.’ But work is personal.”

Whether they belong or not, emotions are in the workplace to stay. It’s up to savvy managers to uplift them and drive results.

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