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CHANGE MANAGEMENT – SET IN EMOTION – PRINT – Issue 225 – July 2023 | Article of the Week


Hybrid teams are not just about bridging gaps between physical and digital work experiences, it’s the hybrid of the cognitive and emotional cultures that underpin any successful workplace transformation. Businesses are under even greater pressure to adapt, as well as push forward transformation to incorporate new technology and hybrid working. Meanwhile, hybrid working demands restructure, forcing changes in culture and leadership. But when change fails, it is often because the mechanics have forged ahead, but the emotion remains behind.

The pandemic revealed and reminded us that our work empires and personal lives are irreducibly built upon fundamentally being a sometimes-vulnerable human. Into such a changed contemporary world, better understood hybridity also recognises the interplay and mix of our cognitive and emotional cultures. To optimise for success in these times of change, business leaders urgently need to build an emotional culture that recognises the human qualities of their staff. Invariably, when the word ‘culture’ is used in the workplace, the default understanding is to think about this intellectually as a shared but primarily cognitive culture. This understanding of cognitive culture describes the shared intellectual values, norms and assumptions that many organisations document and valorise, in a bid to help their teams have a vocabulary and shared objectives in common. The other side to this story is the underlying ‘emotional’ culture that all humans bring to whatever meaningful structures inhabited on a day-to-day basis.

Whether they like it or not, every organisation in every sector around the world has an emotional culture. Businesses that really want to bring the best out of their employees need to go further than simply satisfying their staff with managerial bromides about, “our people being key assets”, or the smart offices and good working conditions most have. Unlike the more easily identified, cognitive cultures that underlie organisations and exist in our mission statements, terms and conditions of employment and the like, the existing current emotional culture in any organisation might at first glance seem invisible, hard to find or are certainly, quite subtle. But it is definitely there if you look and, rest assured, everyone who works there will be well aware of it, even if only informally or subconsciously. Every brand-new employee knows that they need to quickly pick up on these emotional cultural clues straight away to be welcomed, effective and succeed. This often-overlooked area – one that is of increasing interest in the research literature – is the place the reality and impact of emotion in the workplace.

One way of better understanding the importance of the reactions and emotions provoked by upheavals at work is the Change Curve developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This highly-regarded framework of analysis plots the common path through the emotional rollercoaster that people experience during any process of change. The stages Kübler-Ross identifies are; shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiment, decision and finally, hopefully, integration. Understanding this Change Curve also helps leaders, managers and individual staff members make sense of their own emotions as well as feel more equipped to deal with and contribute to the process of change, rather than just being swept along by it. When change is performed with people rather than foisted upon them, anxiety and fear around the process can be reduced, as well as current and future engagement meaningfully nurtured. Opinions vary as to the definition of engagement. Gallup cites engaged employees as those who are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”. Management consultant Aon Hewitt defines engagement as ‘the level of an employee’s psychological investment in their organisation’. Arguably, one of the best definitions when considering “hybridity” is offered by HR software provider Quantum Workplace who deem employee engagement as, “the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work”.

We all know that technology – never mind the panic over the impacts of AI – transforms the way we work, but also that it is not being welcomed or embraced by everyone. Many fear what is coming down the line and, to be fair, this is often unknown. It is very understandable to remain resistant to such – possibly dramatic – change. People worry about a loss in the value and status of their ‘human’ skills, as well as the threat of redundancies and how machines will redefine the workplace. If we look at how machines will impact the emotional culture of an organisation, there are also structural and organisational causes for concern. Not least as our increasing reliance on various fashionable or ‘cutting edge’ flavours of technology is arguably pushing aside empathy and thereby fuelling an empathy deficit. All this happens in the context of a digital world where the pace of work is faster than ever and everyone, irrespective of job function, is year-on-year seemingly expected to do more than before. Into this combustible mix comes both hybrid and remote working and together, these represent one of the biggest changes of all. Building and maintaining engagement inside these new working models requires a new approach tailored to recognising, assuaging and empowering our actual human emotional responses. In a remote environment, signals are even harder to read. Leaders need to be more intentional about maintaining a strong emotional culture with their dispersed teams. Equally, organisations need to carefully plan thoroughly how they use technology in hybrid settings rather than just fall into its use. In our tech-heavy relentless workplaces, the never-ending demands of task completion and workload pressures take precedence over the ‘soft skills’ of fostering human connections. Alternately, the focus has or needs to shift from a ‘where people work’ mindset towards ‘how people actually feel’ workplace philosophy. Emotional intelligence – along with recognising our existing emotional cultures must lay better foundations for change and workplace transformation as well as help employees navigate through uncertainty.

Natalie Boudou’s new book HumanForce: The Power of Emotions in a Changing Workplace is available now. Published by Rethink Press


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