Send more emojis: Why we should prioritize emotional culture in the workplace

Kimberlee Meier,

Writer

2 November 20210 min read

Emotional culture impacts everything. Giving people the confidence to express themselves in a work setting without feeling awkward or the space they need to be creative without feeling judged. This all comes down to what kind of culture a company embodies.

We hear a lot about productivity in the workplace. How much we get done. How many targets are being hit.

But what we don't talk about nearly as much is how emotional culture in the workplace impacts every single one of these things.

Emotional culture impacts everything. Giving people the confidence to express themselves in a work setting without feeling awkward or the space they need to be creative without feeling judged. This all comes down to what kind of culture a company embodies.

Yet what most companies don’t realize is how important emotions are to building the right culture. Not just the tools they use or KPIs they put in place, but whether or not their teams feel comfortable truly expressing themselves when they're at work.

This piece is going to break down:

  • Why is emotional culture important?

  • How to improve emotional culture in your team

    • Encourage feedback sharing often

    • Build emotion into your 1:1 meetings

    • Establish communication guidelines so people feel comfortable interacting

    • Encourage bonding and for people to get to know one another on a deeper level outside just work talk

    • Model the emotional culture you want from the top down

Let's get started.

Why is emotional culture important?

Look up the meaning of emotional culture, and you'll find something “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.”

Let's unpack that a bit.

First of all, people are complex beings: we all have a wide variety of needs, express ourselves in different ways, and feel differently about how we want to work and interact with each other. So, putting some time and energy into getting this right at our workplace seems obvious, right?

Not so much. While some organizations welcome emotions with open arms, others tend to ignore emotions at all costs. However, the companies that focus on emotional culture and nurture it tend to win out in the end.

Our research at Front into emotional culture proves this point. Teams that put time and effort into cultivating their emotional cultures are more comfortable sharing with each other, they’re collaborative but also competitive, and they put effort into their relationships outside of the workplace.

Take a look at the data:

  • 82% of high-performing team members often or always compliment their teammates, compared to 71% of members of other teams.

  • 54% of high-performing team members often or always joke with their teammates, compared to 38% of members of other teams.

  • 41% of high-performing team members tease their teammates, compared to 28% of members of other teams.

And while positive language is important, teams working on their emotional culture also don't shy away from telling each other the truth and having honest dialogue. 46% of high-performing team members use sarcasm when they talk, and 35% of high-performing team members complain to each other.

The reason they're comfortable doing this? They've put in the effort to build real relationships with each other. They trust each other. And teams with this level of trust perform better than others when they have to knuckle down and work on a project together.

And that's why emotional culture is so important. Let's take a deeper look at how to create (and sustain) that type of culture.

How to improve emotional culture in your team

1. Encourage feedback sharing in a safe space

Getting regular feedback from your team is one of the best ways to figure out how well your team is gelling and if they're feeling comfortable in their working environment.

This responsibility almost always falls on the shoulders of managers. But there's also another reality: this is often done with monthly team meetings or annual performance reviews, which can be counterproductive—emotions can't be put into spreadsheets or analytical reports.

Plus, getting people to talk honestly about their emotions isn't exactly an easy task, and they may be more comfortable doing it over a survey or filling out a form instead.

For managers, it's important to treat emotional feedback the same way as you do with any other feedback that comes your way in data points. As our CEO Mathilde Collin points out, when people share their own feelings in good faith, they should be treated as facts.

"I’ve found that the ideal template to give feedback is to say: “When you do X, it makes me feel Y,” where X is a specific action and Y is an emotion," she says.

"Take the example of a coworker who’s showed up more than five minutes late to your last three meetings together. Instead of attacking their character directly by saying: “You’re always late” or “You’re selfish”, try saying: “When you show up late to a meeting with me, it makes me feel angry. I get the impression that you think your time is more important than mine, so it’s OK for you to be late.”

If you treat these feelings as opinions instead of facts, Mathilde says that when things can really go downhill.

"When discussing opinions however, the conversation will most likely devolve into a version of “you’re wrong, I’m right” that will leave both parties more antagonized; nothing good will come out of it."

Instead, state your feelings (as a fact) and then give the other party a chance to discuss how the situation has made them feel. Then, you can both sink your teeth into the core issue of the situation and come to some common ground on moving forward.

2. Build emotion into your 1:1 meetings

Sitting down with each team member and having a 1:1 discussion can help you figure out their communication style and how they like to express themselves.

Now, a lot of managers don't get these meetings right for one reason: they don't ask the right questions. A question like "how are you doing?" may seem obvious, but many meetings are based around agendas and checklists rather than actually asking the other person how they're doing.

Here at Front, our managers and employees meet for monthly "pulse checks" to get a feel for how everyone is doing. Ahead of every 1:1 meeting, employees are sent between six to eight questions, so they know what the managers are going to discuss, but three questions are always the same:

  • In the past month, what have you been happy about?

  • In the past month, what have you been less happy about?

  • Any questions/feedback for me?

For your first 1:1 meeting with a new team member, you'll need to ask some more in-depth questions to try and figure out how to communicate with them on an emotional level. Try questions like:

  • What do you expect from a good manager?

  • How do you prefer to receive recognition?

  • What is important to you outside of work?

  • What makes you grumpy? How will I know when you’re grumpy?

  • What is your favorite way of having our 1:1 meeting: a walk, a coffee break, a meeting in a meeting room?

  • What is the best time for having our 1:1 meeting?

  • What makes 1:1s the most valuable for you?

Asking these types of questions is strategic. Not only do you demonstrate to your team that you actually care about the experience of the people you manage, but it gives them a safe space to talk honestly about how they feel about their working environment.

PRO-TIP: Want to have more impactful 1:1 meetings with your team and improve your company's emotional culture? We've put our 1:1 meeting questions into templates to help teams like yours build trusting relationships. Download them here!

3. Establish communication guidelines so people feel comfortable interacting

Ever had meetings where you feel like you can't get a word in? Or how about those email chains that you keep getting CC'd into…. For no reason?

These are common examples of communication breakdowns. And they usually happen when there are no guardrails in place that explain the etiquette you expect around how your team talks to each other.

And that's why creating a communication guideline is so helpful. These guidelines essentially regulate how your team talks to each other to make each interaction more comfortable and impactful.

The best guidelines aren't 50-page PDFs that drone on and on about communication methods or rules. All you need is a simple table that your team can look at to help them figure out what channel of communication is best to talk about an issue or project.

Here's what Front's communication guidelines look like:

This simple table reminds our entire team that if they need:

  • A speedy response: Use messages or meetings

  • To share an idea: If it's an FYI, ideas can be shared over message. If it's an idea that needs to be discussed—email or meetings are better

  • A response: They'll get a short one through message, or a longer, more informed opinion over email

The end result is that we cut out the number of useless emails and meetings we have in favor of messages. And if we really want to talk something out and collaborate on an idea, we do it when people have the space to think: emails or meetings.

4. Encourage bonding and for people to get to know one another on a deeper level outside just work talk

Sometimes, the best way for your workmates to bond is to forget about work altogether and just talk about their lives.

What is often referred to as "team-building" is actually just giving your team the freedom to make space in their calendar for non-work activities and to build real friendships. There's a reason why letting them do this on the clock is a smart investment: the more comfortable your team is with each other, the easier it is for them to be honest about their emotions, collaborate on tasks and get stuff done.

Here are a couple ideas to suggest to your team:

  • Get to know each other's hometown 🌍: The reality of remote companies is that your team may never get to meet in person. So, encourage your team to get to know more about where each other lives. Just create an editable Google Map and ask your team to add a pin to show where they are. Next time two of your team members are catching up for a 1:1, they can come up with a short story to introduce where they live and talk a little bit more about the place they call home. The bonus with this one is it'll also give your team a better understanding of what timezone everyone is working in.

  • Grab a virtual coffee ☕:The oldest bonding trick in the book is to grab a coffee, so tell your employees to catch up remotely and have a cuppa with each other. Grabbing a coffee can even replace 1:1 meetings if you want to make it more casual and focus on how an employee is coping instead of just talking about work tasks. It's also perfect for getting employees that don't know each other to start building a friendship. Gitlab uses Donut's app to randomly pair employees who don't know each other and asks them to set up a virtual coffee catch-up over Slack.

Or, organize the ultimate bonding activity: an annual team meet up with a no-work rule.

Last year's Front employee experience looked a little different, as we did it remotely. We asked our teams in each city to make a video highlighting what they loved about it: the best food spots, their favorite places to hang out. Then, we created a "road trip" so we could all visit each other's cities.

During the week, we "visited" Paris, Phoenix, and San Francisco. We had live performances and DJ sets, bingo games, eating competitions, and even a meditation session.

We also wanted the week to be really inclusive for everyone. Leading up to the event, we heard that people in HR or People teams trying to get people to engage were hitting a brick wall. So, we wanted to give people as many options as we could to join in: they could engage over Zoom, play a bingo game, watch videos, or even meet up in person—whatever they were comfortable with.

A sheet to keep everyone engaged with the week's activities

5. Model the emotional culture you want from the top down

Finally, let's remember that positive emotional culture in the workplace doesn't just happen—it takes work.

And that work starts at the top. Managers and leaders must be vulnerable, show their human side, and accept constructive criticism themselves.

Bonfire's managing director Jason Mayo summed up modeling emotional culture perfectly in a recent article for Forbes. He says it all comes down to creating an environment that feels safe and fosters creative thinking.

"To me, company culture is about connections. It's about trust and mutual respect. It's about allowing people to feel vulnerable but not fearful," he says.

"Culture always has to start from the top and trickle down. In my opinion, there are no exceptions. As much as we'd like to think company culture happens organically, this usually isn't the case. There is no magic button."

Our employee engagement & retention at Front is high. We've managed to get to a place where we have an employee NPS of 97, and 93% of our team agrees their work contributes to the goals of Front.

But it takes a lotta work from the top to achieve this.

Putting in the effort to connect in meetings. Giving people the space to contribute in a way that they feel comfortable. Practicing transparency and creating shared values.

We've also put our values into words and created a blueprint (called the Culture Book) for what we want our culture to be. As our CEO Mathilde Collin says, culture shouldn't be "retained," but rather something that will evolve as our company scales.

"We created this Culture Book not to dictate our culture, but rather to define the values that will shape the evolution of our culture."

Teams that share emotions are more successful

Creating and nurturing an emotional culture at a company is one of the most important things you can do to build trust and improve your employee happiness.

But it's also good for business.

The data is clear. Teams that share emotions and work on their connections are more successful than those that don't. They have more impactful meetings, they're happier, and they get more stuff done.

So, are you ready to improve your company's emotional culture? Read more about how we managed to do it at Front with our Culture Book here.

Written by Kimberlee Meier

Originally Published: 2 November 2021

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