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.

Emotions at Work Study Example

In a pilot study we investigated both emotions experienced in relation to work (job) and objective-rational indicators of employee satisfaction and engagement.

On objective-rational indicators the company was doing great (mean score of 4 on scales from 1 to 5). The HR department could have congratulated themselves for doing an overall good job. Naturally not everyone in the company was very satisfied and very engaged, but this is to be expected.

Fortunately for the company and their HR team, the investigation using emotions experienced by employees in relationship with their jobs gave a much more deep insight.

By running a segmentation analysis that included objective-rational employee satisfaction indicators and emotions, we identified three employee groups (segments).

About half of the company’s employees were really doing great. They had very high levels of employee satisfaction and engagement. Moreover they reported having experiencing high levels of happiness and very low levels of negative emotions in relationship with their jobs.

For the other two employee segments, things weren’t as rosy as the overall means (at company level) would have suggested.

One segment reported having high levels of employee satisfaction and engagement, but also experiencing rather high levels of negative emotions (e.g. fear, disgust etc.) in relation with their jobs. A more detailed analysis of this segment revealed that these employees were struggling in their jobs, mainly because they want to do more and they (feel that they) are held back.

The third segment reported to have moderately low levels of employee satisfaction (though, that is to be expected in any normal distribution of satisfaction scores) and experience high levels of negative emotions. The in-detail analysis showed that these were faced with much more serious challenges than the other two groups.

In comparison to the group that struggled, this group (almost) gave up hope in being able to do their jobs as they see fit. They stopped fighting for what they wanted to do and resigned in sadness. They experienced moderately high levels of disgust which strongly correlated with surprise, which suggested that they were exposed to transgressions of norms. We later discovered (in qualitative research) that these employees felt that they were being treated unfairly, particularly when it comes to resource allocation at a company level.

If the research on employee satisfaction and engagement would have relied exclusively on objective-rational HR indicators, the company’s HR team would have not identified which employees and team face challenges that need to be addressed. Moreover, the investigation that included emotions experienced at work gave rich insights on the nature of challenges faced by employees.

You can find out more about Emotions at Work and download the full whitepaper here.

If you are interested in investigating employee satisfaction, wellbeing and engagement using the Emotions at Work methodology at your company, please contact us. (We offer great rates)


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