30 November 2016

Emotions at Work

Companies investigate employee satisfaction, engagement, wellbeing for a variety of reasons:
  • High Recruitment costs;
  • High turnover is bad for business;
  • The role employees play in the final product, particularly in services;
  • Inertia / trendiness. 

Most of these investigations are focused on rationally objective topics such as availability of physical resources for employees to do their jobs properly and presence or absence of opportunities for individual professional development etc.

While acknowledging the importance of such features, I believe that an approach based exclusively on rational-objective measures is, at least, incomplete. I propose that, alongside these objective rational measures, HR managers should investigate emotions experienced by employees in relationship with their jobs and co-workers.

Why Investigate Emotions at Work?

Employees spend a large proportion of their time at the workplace and develop complex relationships with co-workers, superiors (managers) and external stakeholders.

Considering the complexity of interactions and the length of time spent at work, it is natural for employees to experience a carousel of emotions at the workplace.

Emotions in marketing research

Marketers and advertisers have long known that emotions play a big role in decision making and behavior and advertising has been addressing emotions for (at least) the last 50 years. Market research was (is) a bit slower to adopt the investigation of consumers’ emotions, but now there are methodologies that do just that.

If emotions are highly important in purchase and consumption decisions and behaviors, it simply is unreasonable to ignore the effects emotions have in behavior at the workplace.

Undoubtedly, at the workplace people (strive to) behave in a professional manner and try to be as rational as they can. Nonetheless, emotions still play (an unconscious) role in the interactions people have at work and in the levels of dedication they put into their jobs.

An employee’s work dedication will be influenced by her emotions towards colleagues and managers. Imagine two (fictional) employees:

(1) Stephan who feels contempt towards his manager and experiences disgust in relationship with one or two colleagues.  

(2) Jack who feels pride when thinking about his manager and experiences anger in relationship with one or two colleagues.

If Stephan and Jack do exactly the same job in very similar companies, then their overall wellbeing, likelihood of searching for a new job and even performance will be rather different. Contempt and disgust are emotions that it is very hard to get over.

Sure, Stephan can work for a manager towards who he feels contempt, but that will require a lot of willpower and we know that we don’t have infinite self-control. Stephan will, probably, be able to have minimal interactions with the colleagues who disgust him, but not much more than that. The employee’s dedication will be very low. Most likely, Stephan will just perform his tasks without experiencing any intrinsic pleasure (gratification). Sooner or later, Stephan’s team will need him to put-in an extra-effort and he’ll just say: “sorry, not my job / sorry the shift ended 5 minutes ago”.

Jack, however, will probably happily accept the challenge of putting-in an extra-effort to support the team because he’s proud of working for his manager. Being angry with a co-worker is something that one can get over and, maybe, that very anger drives Jack to “fight” and prove himself to his colleagues.