For the sake of making solid business decisions, there has been much effort to weed emotion out of the business world. It has developed emotionless phrases like, “Nothing personal, it’s just business” or “Don’t let emotions make decisions for you”. These phrases have validity and value, but only when placed in the proper context. This idea is not, and should not become, a vanilla paint that gets slathered on every aspect of life within an organization.

Most executives understand the value in having a quality organizational culture. Thanks to Peter Drucker’s work and near infamous phrase, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”, the message has sunk in. What hasn’t fully sunk in is what comes next. Culture drives engagement and there is a clearly defined relationship between culture and engagement. It is emotion.

EmotionsWithout emotion, engagement cannot exist. It is the emotional connection to a vision that engages employees. It is the emotional connection to contributing to something bigger than self that calls forth that discretionary effort which cannot be demanded by a job description. It is the emotional connection to that sense of those leading you putting effort into your own professional development that makes people find solutions that current processes tend to hide from view.

In the context of culture and engagement, healthy emotion should rule the roost. The operative word is healthy. I have been in many organizations where emotion ruled the roost, but because of a poorly managed culture those emotions were borderline psychopathic – more info on psychopathic culture here. Lying, manipulation, fragmented relationships, blatant disregard for established norms and other deviant behavior seem to be the catch of the day…every day.

Harnessing healthy emotion via your culture as a way to improve engagement is vitally important. Here are a few tips on how to make emotion work for your engagement.

  • Define healthy – Every organization will have a slightly adjusted definition based on their organizational DNA. Whatever healthy means for your organizational values, vision, and strategy is the exact prescription for creating this definition. Alignment. Alignment. Alignment.
  • Determine important emotions – Choose which emotions will serve organizational goals the best. Make a list of 5-10 emotional aspects that will serve the goals and focus of your organization. Don’t try to cover every scenario, just grab the the real impact-drivers.
  • Check for alignment – The first point was aligning the definition of healthy. This point is aligning the chosen emotions with your values. This is a precarious place where a mixed message can throw a culture off kilter and actually disengage people. Make sure the definition of healthy, regarding the chosen emotions, line up well and help communicate your desired culture.
  • Explore opportunities – Tease out how an atmosphere can be created that will facilitate and encourage each one of these healthy emotions. Look to existing mechanisms – i.e. processes, systems, communication tools, etc. How can these healthy emotions not only encourage engagement, but reinforce the culture your organization needs? That’s where the magic happens.
  • Set targets – None of this really matters unless you have a way to recognize success. This shouldn’t be dogmatic in nature. Set some guidelines for recognizing the right emotion, but give yourself some flexibility to allow the expression of that emotion to be determined by people in your organization. Understand the nuances of sub-cultures (IT will have a different cultural expression than the sales team) and give enough latitude for them to be authentic to their sub-culture. Once it’s obvious, then adjust the target based on success. Don’t base success on an arbitrary target.
  • Rinse and repeat – Don’t view this process as a one-and-done. This is a process-oriented way to lead your organization. Let this focus become a part of how you view your competitive advantage. Culture is always important and engagement is always necessary. Never forget that.

What are your thoughts? How else can we make emotion work for our organizations through culture and engagement?

  • William,

    Defining healthy emotions for a culture at an organization would be a great discovery to undertake. If nothing else, the discussion would highlight healthy and unhealthy emotions and may set a course to embrace and discard. People may be waking up to the fact that culture is vital. At least, I hope so….



  • You bet Jon. Helping bring this issue center stage with organizational leaders is definite passion of mine. Thanks heaps for your insightful contribution!!

  • Thanks William for bringing this topic. We think we are rational and logic when we take decisions but the reality is that more than 90% of our choices are purely emotional reactions. That is why marketers know how to tap into our emotional brain to have us buy more of their stuff. Same for leadership. People will follow you and will share their most precious asset, TIME, If they like you. I think “like-ability” is a personality trait of effective leaders.

    To support how our emotions play a major role in our decisions, I like the work of Dan Ariely, an American professor of psychology and behavioral economics who wrote a very interesting book “Predictably Irrational”

  • William

    Couldn’t agree more on the Rx for healthy workplace cultures and employees who will be more engaged when they experience more emotional freedom.
    Change is often painfully slow and most org leaders aren’t up to date on the clear messages coming from research in neuroscience. Not only is “nothing personal” illusory from a brain’s point of view – we want emotions (“in the way”) because we can’t make decision, access our creativity and build collaborative relationships without them.

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  • Great points Anne. Thanks for contributing and adding some more resources for this topic!!

  • Absolutely George. The slow nature of change is what tests the mettle of leaders. It is a long-term commitment and many folks are interested in the “silver bullet” approach so they can “get back to the important stuff of running the company”. Thanks for your input!

  • William, Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about Engagement lately. I use the word “engage” to describe one of the 5 Essentials of Lead With Giants, a virtual community. This is also an essential in the workplace as you so well describe here.

  • There is a distinct connection between leadership and engagement. In my experience, engaged people behave with leadership (whether or not they are titled leaders). In short, the behavior generated by quality engagement is leadership in whatever context that may be. Thanks for your contribution!!

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  • Excellent post! Yes, by definition, engagement is an employee’s emotional connection to their work, the company. When I was writing my Master’s thesis- in 1994 “How to build a values-based business partnership” that I titled “Professional Intimacy” I was told I shouldn’t use those words because the rule in business and professionalism dictated you should “leave your emotions at the door.” I listened at first, but then as I studied the neuroscience of emotions and motivation, it became obvious that for human beings, not only was following the rule next to impossible for mere mortals, but a bad idea if you wanted to be a respected and trusted leader in an organization. Many rules are meant to be broken, and it’s about time this one goes by the wayside, too.