It’s funny, I can almost predict the faces I receive when I ask managers if they know what gives their team members positive emotions…. Usually a look of complete contempt or confusion – as if they think they must have heard me wrong, but it’s something I feel strongly about. How can you manage a human being if you’re not aware of how emotions affect their ability to bring their best-self to the task in hand?
Whether you choose to accept it or not, emotions are part of what makes us human and when we hear people saying “I’m not an emotional person” – that’s not entirely the case, at any one time we will be feeling an emotion. Sometimes we find it easy to name and sometimes we’re feeling such a myriad of emotions that pinpointing exactly how we feel can be hard – especially if we are not used to recognising and naming these emotions.
Let’s put this into the workplace context, you’ve left home late after a disagreement with your partner, the traffic is terrible, the weather is worse and you arrive at the office over 40 minutes late; giving you only 10 minutes to settle before the meeting with your manager to discuss and reflect on a recently completed project that had some issues. How are you feeling? Stressed? Frustrated? Angry? Irritable? All of the aforementioned? How easy is it to bring your best-self to that meeting when feeling like this? I would suggest it’s pretty hard. Add to the fact, the last time you were in this office you were told there may be some redundancies made – your behaviour may become defensive, reactive and not particularly constructive.
This is probably quite a common scenario in the workplace – external factors have affected our mood and emotions meaning we are unable to bring our full attention and best-self to our role.
However, understanding the power of positive emotions could present a toolkit that not only helps the individual to take responsibility for finding ways to counter balance problematic emotional situations, but also supports both the manager and the workplace in designing and building an environment to cultivate positive emotions in their employees.
Firstly, it’s important to understand the nature of positive emotions and what they bring to our cognitive state. A scientist called Barbara Fredrickson conducts research into emotions and positive psychology. She developed the ‘Broaden & Build theory of positive emotions’ which suggests that our positive emotions lead to “novel, expansive, or exploratory behaviour, and that, over time, these actions lead to meaningful, long-term resources such as knowledge and social relationships”. This in reality means that the more positive emotions we feel, the wider our cognitive ability grows which in turn, improves our thought-action repertoire and enables us to make better decisions with more creativity and improves our toolkit of behavioural resources in the long run.
There have been many studies in recent years that examine correlations and consequences of the experience of positive emotions. Although there are still studies being undertaken to truly understand specific pathways linking positive emotions to these important outcomes, what is clear is that when people frequently feel positive emotions, they are better off at home and at work.
Consequently, corporate wellness programmes that look to enhance positivity in the workplace are becoming powerful tools to produce desired positive outcomes that improve overall employee well-being and productivity.
That’s a lot of science, but effectively, the important factor is that without positive emotions flowing through our day, we cannot function at our best, or anywhere near it. If our day is full of neutral or negative emotion, our ability to ‘think things through’, develop new ideas or react with appropriate behaviour to unexpected situations is severely diminished. So, what can we do? Well, as I mentioned earlier… it’s a 4-pronged approach:
The key to our wellbeing lies in our own hands. This is a simple message, but one many either are actually not familiar with or choose to ignore. Sometimes, we need to educate people on what true wellbeing is and much of positive psychology and the science of flourishing may seem common-sense, but to discover and understand it and then apply it to your life is extremely energising. Helping individuals to realise all the small things that give them a positive emotion – from having coffee with a colleague, or even having a specific type of coffee in the office, or maybe some regular fresh air-breaks – is really important to building a bit of resilience. I know that if I’m starting to feel stressed at my desk, listening to a certain piece of music, or taking myself off for a 5-minute walk in the sunshine can help me to reset that mood before it takes hold. If you focus on ‘what gives you a positive emotion’ – you are also avoiding language which ultimately manifests itself – like ‘stress management’. How do you manage stress? It’s an emotional reaction to overwhelm – managing emotions is about understanding them and working with them. Helping Individuals understand this through some form of education, self-study, fun workshop or team coaching can be very beneficial.
Has your manager ever asked you “What brings you joy?” In an appraisal meeting? It may sound like a weird question, but if a manager doesn’t know what brings their employee positive emotions, how can they understand how the employee can be at their best in the workplace? Being more aware of the language they use when making conversation, so instead of asking “how are you?”, asking “tell me about something good that’s happened this morning?” – this simple switch focusses an employee in on a positive experience. Equally, learning how employees like to take their most restorative breaks allows a manager to recognise the moments they need them and encourage that specific type of break. This encourages the employee to feel truly engaged “my manager really knows me”. Managers need to know the power of positive emotions and build programmes and plan days with these in mind to get the best from their employees.
‘Place’ has an important effect on our memories and these are all about the emotions we experience whilst in those spaces. I’m sure we can all think of certain places that bring back positive emotions. Often, we don’t always know those emotions exist until we’re there or we think about it. Within our workspaces, we have areas that will generate certain emotions for people and similarly to the way we design customer-facing spaces to generate a desired response, we should take the same approach with our employee spaces. If staff communal areas are expected to be peaceful and serene, are they designed with this in mind? How can managerial offices be designed to put employees at ease, rather than create further stress?
Lastly, the fourth approach to take is one of Culture. Driven from the top and steeped in organisational values; recognition of the importance of emotional awareness and the understanding of positive emotions as a large part of the productivity and engagement jigsaw is essential to building a community of emotionally intelligent employees who can perform at their best.
Disclaimer: There’s a risk here that you think negative emotions have no value but on the contrary, negative emotions are extremely important in driving action and there are certainly moments in the workplace where negative emotions lead to great outcomes; for example, an anxious worker can use anxiety to their benefit, however, they can also let it cripple them. It’s the intervention of positive emotions within this anxiety that can have a positive effect of managing the anxiety into beneficial performance rather than a hinderance to performance. It’s also a key to building resilience.
Needing to understand positive emotions in the workplace isn’t a superficial ‘happy and jolly’ approach to wellbeing. Each and every employee contributes to the workplace culture through their emotions which drive their behaviour, productivity and engagement. Getting to grips with emotions and the impact they have on employees, teams, customers and therefore the business as a whole represents a dimension managers and business owners must tackle to drive success.