by Gael O’Brien

Sigal Barsade, a pioneering researcher on the impact of emotions in the workplace, leaves a legacy for leaders who want to get their culture right. Professor Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at Wharton, died at 56 in February 2022 of brain cancer. For nearly 30 years, she researched, taught, and consulted on “how emotions shape workplace culture and influence the performance of both individual employees and teams.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, business articles encouraged leaders to lead with empathy. Many did. However, leading with compassion is often more effective. Barsade’s and Olivia O’Neill’s research had already demonstrated that “Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better” and have more job satisfaction and loyalty. The love referenced is “companionate love,” emotions that Barsade knew belonged in the workplace like compassion, caring, kindness and warmth. However, many leaders, she said, haven’t made room for emotions at work or connected love to culture. Their focus is cognitive culture, setting the tone for how employees think and behave at work.

Barsade argued leaders needed to broaden their idea of culture. Emotional culture, she explained “is the set of emotions necessary for a group to enact to meet its goals.” Her work was ahead of its time and so relevant now. Her research on managing emotional culture, how emotions spread (emotional contagion) and balancing cognitive and emotional cultures were followed by next-step approaches. We’ll look at some. Getting culture right means leaders working with culture in its entirety (cognitive and emotional), modeling the behaviors and emotions they want to cultivate supporting employee and company success.

When culture isn’t approached that way, problems multiply. While expressing emotions connected to companionate love support healthy cultures, a recent study indicates toxic cultures are a driver in “the Great Resignation.” In addition, Navex’s 2022 Global Incident Management Benchmark Study documents that workplace incivility is on the rise. Do we really want culture to slide backwards?

Living the Work 

Growing up, seeds of Barsade’s big purpose were planted as she listened to her parents talk at dinner about their work days. She learned about the human dynamics of management from their stories. The discussions, she said, gave her an appreciation for the importance of one’s work life. As an undergraduate, she decided her career would involve helping improve people’s work experience. Before getting her doctorate in organizational behavior, she worked as an executive assistant to CEOs in different industries to gain workplace experience.

An advisee of Barsade’s wrote on social media after her death: “She was an unstoppable force. Fierce in advocacy for people and ideas.” Sigal Barsade operated out of high emotional intelligence. She expressed the kindness and care of companionate love, which increased her impact and drew others to her. She wanted business leaders to make room for “feelings people have and express at work.” Wharton Dean Erika H. James, wrote that Barsade “encouraged business leaders to think differently and widen their beliefs about what matters in the workplace.”

Thinking Differently About Culture  

The role of emotional culture

A theme throughout much of Barsade’s work is how emotions and managing them are central to building the right culture. Corporate culture contains both emotional and cognitive cultures and each transmits differently. Cognitive culture is often communicated verbally while emotional culture is often communicated nonverbally through facial expressions and body language.

“Companies that build the optimum ratio of cognitive and emotional culture for their employees,” Barsade wrote and “can succeed in generating the best worker performance with the lowest turnover.” However, when leaders disregard emotional culture, she added, “they overlook a fundamental part of being human and thereby stunt the potential of their companies.”

Employee satisfaction, teamwork, burnout, financial performance, and work absences are influenced by emotional culture. Positive emotions impact quality, better performance, and customer service. If negative emotions are constructive, they can be useful, but otherwise, they can lead to undesirable outcomes. The current rise in toxic cultures would be one example.

Aligning reality with the intention

Barsade wanted leaders to succeed and provided many ideas for identifying and managing emotional culture. Her big picture was to advocate that what’s expressed in mission statements and other company pronouncements is reflected in daily micro-moments. “For example, little acts of kindness and support can add up to an emotional culture characterized by caring and compassion.” Or a manager’s facial expressions and body language consistently looking angry can cultivate a culture of anger.

Identifying a company’s emotional culture

For leaders who don’t know what their company’s emotional culture is, Barsade suggested a process for how they could measure it:

  • Start with “executives verbalizing modeling and rewarding the emotions” they want cultivated in the organization;
  • Have “middle management and front-line supervisors transmit those desired emotions” to those reporting to them by verbalizing, modeling, and rewarding;
  • Ask employees in a survey “to report on what emotions they see expressed by colleagues around them” rather than asking what they personally feel;
  • Do interviews and on-site observations of emotional culture to provide more information; and
  • If results indicate widespread negative emotions, leaders must “model the positive emotions they wish to propagate in the group.”

In “Quantifying Your Company’s Emotional Culture”, Barsade and O’Neill point out that groups can have more than one emotional culture. “Once (managers) gauge which cultures are prevalent they can determine which ones they must focus on the most to meet their strategic goals.” Leaders’ behavior is a key tool in changing emotional culture. Their emotional expressions and attitudes influence others.

Emotional Contagion

Employees and leaders at every level “continuously spread their own moods and receive and are influenced by others’ moods.” However, whether negative or positive, emotional contagion can also transfer across workgroups, zoom, “video, television, social media, and even email.”

Barsade wrote that the goal for managers was “an environment that enhances employee engagement and performance by paying attention to the emotional contagion occurring in your team.”  She suggested several “action steps.”

  • “Be consciously aware of your own mood. If it’s not one that will be useful to your team, change it;”
  • “Use nonverbal behaviors to communicate emotional contagion;”
  • “Make direct eye contact with everyone on the team;”
  • “Neutralize a negative team member;” and
  • “Create a positive emotional culture within the team.”

What Matters in a Workplace

Whether in a company’s location or a home office, what matters in the workplace are people and how the company’s culture impacts and motivates them.

In a 20-minute talk to leaders preserved on YouTube entitled “All You Need is Love … At Work?,” Barsade summarized what matters most in workplaces. She spoke through the lens of emotional culture’s role in fostering business success. She reminded leaders that employees don’t leave their humanity or their emotions at the door when they walk into an organization.

The focus on the importance of humanity is a theme echoed in a recent Fortune article about what it takes to be a great employer now. Cisco has ranked first in 2022 and 2021 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for list. One reason for that, according to Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, is that:

“Employees don’t want to be employees, they don’t want to work for managers and they don’t want to work for executives. They want to be human beings who work for other human beings. And I think authenticity and the importance of being human, understanding the things they’re dealing with as humans, and building that into how you approach them, is so important.”

Sigal Barsade would agree.

Photos of Sigal Barsade courtesy of The Wharton School.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

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