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Emotional honesty offers more innovative working environments

Different emotional climates can significantly affect whether organisations achieve their strategic objectives

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘keeping emotions out of the workplace’ is key to attaining viable personal and corporate achievement in the business world. By not challenging this convention, however, we may be ignoring the inherent value of emotions as a driving force for commercial and organisational success.

Most of us agree that being emotionally reserved at work is a widely accepted expression of good professional conduct. However, this overlooks a similarly widely held trope in business that emotion motivates markets and organisations to invest in people and companies, which furthermore acts as a constructive agent to compel innovation and stimulate positive market activity.

How organisations arrange themselves and differ in affective (emotional) environments, and how this affects employees and the executive outcomes of organisations, is not always well-understood. To address this dearth of knowledge, organisational behaviourists have recently used ‘climate theory’ to advance the understanding of ‘affect’ or emotional ‘climate’ within organisations.

For those new to the subject, climate theory is a central concept in organisational psychology that has its roots in the 1920s Hawthorne Studies. These classic studies found that workers were responsive to social factors – such as the people they worked with on a team and the amount of interest their manager had in their work – rather than merely the environmental factors such as lighting. Although still debated to this day, results of these studies were among the first to show that job performance was dependent on the social and working environment.

It was here for the first time that we begin to see how climate influences organisational performance. Today we recognise that different emotional climates can significantly affect whether organisations achieve their strategic objectives of customer service, productivity, and creativity.

In a paper I recently collaborated on with my colleague, associate professor Myeong-Gu Seo, ('The Role of Affect Climate in Organizational Effectiveness') we suggest that organisations, by the systematic alignment of company practices, leadership styles, and administrative routines, can create environments that form one of six unique affect climate types. The six affect climates fall within a band, which range from negative through neutral to positive climates, and then arranged again on a spectrum of ‘highly authentic’ to ‘contrived emotions’.

To further explain our approach, we noted a difference between ‘emotional display climates’ and ‘emotional authentic climates’. Display climates form when employees are mandated to express certain types of emotions for various business goals. For example, retail might require employees to be happy with customers, while medical or professional workplaces may require neutral, impassive displays in order to prevent bias and further signal authority.

What we proposed, however, is that organisations with a display climate in which employees must suppress many of their emotions, except for a narrowly acceptable range, face performance disadvantages. These include poorer relationships, weaker engagement, and inferior creativity owing to the need to suppress and withhold feelings and ideas that do not match the desired and sanctioned emotions. For example, neutral displays signal authority – that all things are expressly under control. But they also exhibit a degree of immutability that will make it difficult for members to challenge or question existing work procedures.

Conversely, positive authentic climates often promote genuine experiences of positive emotion and use them for productivity and creative purposes. For example, Google employees incorporate fun and play into their work. These processes help employees to capitalise on the creativity produced by a positive, open environment, such as how positive emotions drive exploration of new ideas and help to continually assimilate information. Furthermore, this genuine positive feeling helps drive collaboration, co-ordination, and productivity.

Our research also points strongly to the idea that climates where authentic emotions, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, are given scope and range, also produce high levels of creativity and meaningful relationships. When climates support people in sharing their genuine negative emotions at work these often lead to resolution of problems that enhance work and trust. By fully harnessing both positive and negative emotions in organisations, wider benefits can be amassed in terms of improved productivity and innovation.

Michael Parke is assistant professor of organisational behaviour and a researcher with London Business School’s Leadership Institute