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Developing A Positive Emotional Culture During Times of Change

The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced many of us to work from home and left companies to adjust with little to no planning. Social distancing and quarantine efforts affect all sectors of our economy differently. Some, like healthcare workers, will deal with the stress of frontline work. Others in the service sectors are dealing with massive layoffs and the economic and emotional insecurities that come with that. Many of us in the professional services sectors are fortunate enough to continue in our paid positions – but from home. While we may not be on the frontline of these struggles, this shift to remote work comes with legitimate stress, emotions, and significant change. And frequently, with change comes feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and loss. Not only our space and environment has changed, but we’re also trying to work from home with our families, and care for our loved ones while simultaneously carrying anxiety and stress about the virus and are grieving with our nation and the world.

As a change management professional and workplace culture facilitator, I have guided thousands of people over the years through large-scale workplace culture change and have seen firsthand the extraordinary resilience, triumphs and transformation people are capable of when they and their organizations have an appropriate level of support, effective strategy, and open mind and heart. I feel compelled to do what I can to help others, in the best way I know how, who might be struggling. I’d like to offer a few ideas that may help us all emotionally support each other through this change.

All organizations have an emotional culture, and it needs our attention now more than ever.

As companies make this rather abrupt shift to remote working, they should prepare for their organizational culture to be tested in ways it may not have ever been before. Culture plays an acute role in our workplaces and it deeply matters. A complex system, organizational culture is defined by and broken down into three distinct yet interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent parts. The three parts that contribute to organizational culture include:

  • Cognitive Culture (thinking) – the shared beliefs, values, assumptions, language, and vision which shape the intellectual or psychological collective regard.
  • Behavioral Culture (doing) – the actions, conduct, and mannerisms that are accepted and adopted and then influence the behavioral social norms.
  • Emotional Culture (feeling) – the underlying emotions, moods, and feelings that impact people and their affective experiences.

We tend to spend the majority of time and energy focusing on cognitive and behavioral culture. But, we’re not spending enough time and energy, if any at all, focusing on the emotional culture within our organizations. Every organization has emotional culture, because organizations are made up of humans and humans are emotional by design. We all must do our part to acknowledge, support, and help nurture the emotional culture, especially now. In this climate of uncertainty, things are unpredictable and rapidly evolving; as a result, emotions of employees and leaders and therefore organizational culture, are amplified.

Everything we do as humans, all the decisions we make, are based on emotions. Unfortunately, many of us will face challenging and necessary decisions amid this pandemic. Self-awareness and conducting sanity checks on how our emotions, positive or negative, may be driving our decisions are critical things to do if we are to keep work moving forward in a productive way. If we are experiencing emotions like worry, stress, disappointment, anger, grief, fear, panic, overwhelm, and anxiety, it could lead to things like depression, ambiguity, feelings of isolation, lack of control, loss of normalcy and security, hopelessness, and paranoia– all of which could have an impact on team performance, organizational performance, and the way we experience our work and workplaces. Being mindful that these emotions are present helps to release the control they have over us and mitigate the negative impact they have on our actions and decisions.

Additionally, people look to their job not only as a source of income, but a source of purpose, meaning, identity, happiness, and community. Many of us feel a sense of place, community, and belonging more from the connections with people in our workplaces than any other network in our lives, and in times of forced remote work that might feel endangered or destabilized. To add to the contrast, we are less connected to friends and family because of our limited contact with them as we practice social distancing and self-quarantining. We are social creatures who don’t function well without a network that extends beyond ourselves, so cultivating and maintaining that sense of place, community, and belonging within organizations while our teams are dispersed is important.

To develop positive emotional culture at work, we might all consider elevating higher human qualities like empathy, compassion, respect, kindness, patience, forgiveness, understanding, honesty, and trust, and encourage our colleagues to do the same. At Steele Strategies, we find that when we show up in this way, in the face of fear, our employees feel more connected and safer in their teams, are more comfortable expressing their thoughts, and are more willing to venture into the unknown together. Facing uncertainty makes these skills more essential than ever, but more challenging to traverse while working remotely. That said it will go a long way in helping to support and manage the psychological, social, and emotional elements of rapidly transitioning through this change. In this context, we all want and need to feel cared for and trusted by our employers and colleagues, not suspect. 

Small purposeful actions make a big difference.

It’s important to remember that change is individual and very personal. We’re all experiencing unexpected and rapid forced change, and despite the necessary and ethical reasons warranting it, it may increase levels of resistance for better or worse. Resistance is 100 percent natural and totally normal, offers opportunity, and can be leveraged for good if we shift our perspective. How organizations and leaders react and respond to this rapid and forced change will set the stage for how employees react and respond.

Below are six purposeful acts we can all do to support each other with this change:

1. Choose flexibility over bureaucracy.

Things are very fluid right now and increased flexibility in thought, mind-set, expectations, time, behavior, structure, routine, communication, etc. will help to mitigate normal resistance to change. Processes and policies are important so we know how to navigate in a remote environment, but too much may cause pushback and frustration while there are so many other things to think about right now like childcare, homeschooling, elderly parents, personal health, potential layoffs, and mounting bills.

2. Adjust expectations.

We’ve all found ourselves suddenly dealing with an over-stretched and imbalanced work-life. Our colleagues who are working parents now have three full time jobs at the same time- employee, chief of childcare, and head-master schoolteacher. Romantic partners and platonic roommates now have 24-hour interaction. Routines and schedules have gone awry, patience is being tested, internet connections are failing, among other things. Be adaptable with expectations and focus on results. Employers and teams might consider determining which projects are essential priorities, and then relaxing on the non-priority, non-essential work. To the extent possible, empower each other to work when you can, to be offline when you need to, and trust everyone is being good stewards while making the right decisions in the best interest of the organization.

3. Prioritize deliberate, thoughtful, and transparent communication.

People are processing a lot of information right now and are having trouble separating what’s relevant and useful from what’s not. What, when, where, why and how we communicate is extremely important. Don’t assume that just because we’ve disseminated information or communicated something that people are fully aware. Communicate early, often, through multiple channels, and with as much transparency as possible, even if it makes you feel vulnerable. We don’t need to have all the answers, but it is far better to over-communicate in intentional, thoughtful ways than to under communicate.

4. Involve and listen to each other.

Engagement takes a little extra time and effort, but there is considerable power in involving and listening especially during times of change. People feel cared for, seen, heard, and valued. Don’t judge, don’t offer solutions, don’t interrupt with questions or opinion. Simply listen to understand. Establishing an engagement and listening strategy and ways for people to provide feedback on their experience, express their concerns, and share their ideas will help everyone cope.

5. Intentionally connect.

If using video to communicate during remote work try scheduling virtual coffee, lunch dates, or happy hours with teams or work besties. Even an occasional and quick virtual check in helps. Video doesn’t need to be used only for work talk. And be inclusive. The FOMO struggle is real and challenges our sense of inclusion and belonging, which can have detrimental impacts on teams and relationships at work. It’s easy to feel forgotten or overlooked especially if there are a lot of ad-hoc conversations happening. Always assume positive intent and frequently check in.

6. Express gratitude.

This crisis is new territory for everyone. It’s hard, it’s complicated, it’s scary. While it may not be easy to find gratitude in the face of difficult circumstances, we can make a choice to express our appreciation to others AND to ourselves. We’re all doing the best we can and the power of a sincere and meaningful “thank you” may very well be exactly what someone, including yourself, needs to hear right now.

We are in this together.

Though everyone is different and will respond to these adjustments in their own way, the one unifier of people in (and out of) the workplace is our desire to connect with each other. Vulnerability and showing up in honest ways are the most meaningful ways we connect with each other, no matter what the environment or relationship. Let’s talk to each other and be open about our experience. It’s okay to be vulnerable with our colleagues about how we’re feeling about the current COVID-19 crisis and the changes and social isolation that come with quarantine and additional time at home. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you think someone is struggling, it’s okay to ask them how they are feeling, and to show you care. We often feel like we don’t want to bother others, which can prevent us from seeking the help we need. When we genuinely inquire it opens the door and lends a much-needed hand.

In all the years I have ushered workplaces through major change, if there was one thin­g I wish people would do differently, it’s remembering that we’re all human and people must come first. Emotional culture is dominating our organizations right now. Once you get your footing and find your groove with the technical infrastructure of remote working, there’s a lot of opportunity to cultivate, empower, and enable greater connections, strengthen workplace relationships, and positively impact the overall health and well-being of each other and our organizational culture. At the end of the day, remember who you are and what you need, and then help others. We are all in this together.

Encourage, lift and strengthen one another. For the positive energy spread to one will be felt by us all. For we are connected, one and all.

– Deborah Day