Urgent message: As in most business settings, urgent care operators emphasize the importance of a positive cognitive culture. Given the close quarters and frequent interaction among colleagues and patients, however, emotional culture can also have a strong influence on quality of care, patient and employee satisfaction—and even the success of the operation.
[The following summary of the January-February, 2016 Harvard Business Review Article spotlights how organizations are slowly realizing the importance of managing the emotional culture of their workplace. Traditionally, most organizations pay little heed to how its employees feel on a day-to-day basis while performing their jobs, with the primary focus being on performance and behavior. Yet studies clearly illustrate that the emotional culture of a workplace has a profound effect on work quality, productivity, commitment, and, ultimately, the bottom line.]
With few exceptions, organizations place marked emphasis on what can be described as their cognitive culture: the shared values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that set the tone for how employees think and behave at work. These values are generally conveyed verbally. What most haven’t paid close enough attention to, however, is their company’s emotional culture: the shared affective (emotional) values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work, and which ones they are better off suppressing. Emotional culture is usually conveyed nonverbally through body language and facial expressions.
Often, emotional culture is poorly managed and/or marginalized in many organizations. This is a mistake, as numerous workplace studies clearly show: An organization’s prevailing emotional culture has a pronounced effect on employee’s decision-making, work quality, commitment, creativity, and company loyalty. Not to mention the bottom line. Clearly, it’s critically important to monitor and manage employees’ feelings as deliberately as is done with their mindset and approach to their jobs.
Delving Beneath the Surface
Well-known brands such as PepsiCo, Whole Foods, and Southwest Airlines have become aware of the organizational impact of a deliberately managed emotional culture, and are beginning to explicitly emphasize their emotional ethos in their management principles. For example, these companies and many others list “love” and “caring” in their current corporate values. Other like-minded organizations have placed increased importance on how having emotion-based principles like fun is a key component in their success.
When attempting to actively manage an emotional culture, it’s important that the actions and behaviors of employees align with the company mission statements and corporate badges. This is best accomplished during the “micro moments” of organizational life. If an organization espouses “caring and compassion,” for instance, those principles should be expressed through companywide acts of kindness and support.
Interestingly, office décor and furnishings can effectively convey an emotional culture as well. Photos of employees having fun at social outings can signal a culture of lightheartedness and joy, while prominently displayed signage with rules and consequences can reflect a culture of fear. Moreover, a meeting room with big comfy couches and tissues suggest a place where it’s okay to vent or let your guard down.
Emotional Culture in Action
Deliberately managed emotional cultures can play out in interesting ways, depending on the organization. Vail Resorts, in an effort to gain an edge in retaining top talent, focuses on “having fun” as a core company value. They understand that cultivating joy among employees helps customers have fun, which is key in the hospitality sector, so they support their culture through outings, celebrations, and awards. They even go as far as having their top executives participate in fun stunts like dumping ice buckets over their head for a worthy cause, or jumping into swimming pools fully clothed.
Companies like Cisco Finance declared “joy” to be an explicit cultural value, naming it “Pause for Fun.” They even go so far as elevating their joy initiative to a specific outcome to be tracked and evaluated, like any other performance metric. Additionally, “companionate love,” which is the degree of affection, caring, and compassion that employees feel and express toward one another, was found to have a positive effect on absenteeism, burnout, and job satisfaction across a number of industries.
When Emotions Intersect
Another emotion-based phenomenon that researchers have observed is how many organizations have multiple, competing emotional cultures that serve to balance the potentially negative effects of their unchecked counterparts. Too much fun can impede work, while an uptight and overly serious culture can make work too stressful. So, companies have to somehow arrive at a balance. For example, a study of several firefighter organizations showed that while being jokesters and pranksters with their coworkers, the firemen alternatively showed a strong degree of companionate love towards one another during tough times. And although instances like these are not the direct result of deliberate emotion management, they serve to illustrate the interesting ways that competing emotional dynamics can have a synergist effect on each other.
Creating an Emotional Culture
Engagement experts cite a number of methods that can be effective in the creation of an emotional culture:
- Harness what people already feel – When people feel and display the desired emotions, bring positive attention to it to reinforce it. This positive reinforcement is key for building the desired culture. And when a workforce only displays the desired emotion periodically, gentle nudges during the workday can be effective in increasing their frequency.
- Prominent display of cultural artifacts – Kudos boards, posters, action figures, and other lighthearted, work-appropriate paraphernalia serve to create a physical environment aligned with the desired emotional culture.
- Model the emotions you want to cultivate – Research shows that people “catch” feelings from others through behavioral mimicry. Hence, gestures like warm, heartfelt smiles are likely to create positive energy and, through “emotional contagion,” cause others in the group to do the same.
- Fake it til you feel it – Encourage employees to express the desired emotion even when they don’t necessarily feel it. This can be accomplished through surface acting or deep acting:
- Surface acting – a short-term technique where the desired emotion is displayed strategically but not felt.
- Deep acting – actually attempting to conjure the desired emotion through various mental techniques. Considered a superior alternative to surface acting.
Implementation Matters at All Levels
Organizational leaders and executives must model the emotions they want to instill in their workforce. There must also be a trickle-down effect from senior executives to mid-management to create a unified and concerted emotional culture effort. Additionally, organizational practices, operations, and processes should all be in line with the desired emotional culture. In short, an effective emotional culture must pervade an organization from top to bottom in order for it to fully thrive.
Healthcare providers such as urgent care operators can glean important insights from the examination of emotional culture in the workplace. First, an effective emotional culture will rarely spring up on its own. Rather, it has be deliberately managed and sustained. Second, as frontline urgent care staff are subject to a lot of surface acting when interacting with patients, there must be a strong supporting emotional culture in place to offset the resulting emotional strain. Lastly, an emotional culture of compassion—for patients and employees alike—is essential for an urgent care operation to reach its full potential.
Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Practice Velocity, LLC and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine