We’ve all heard the saying before: “Act professional.” In fact, it’s such an ingrained ethic in Corporate America that in many pre-pandemic workplaces, we tended to disregard how employees navigate a complex sea of emotions as they come to work each day.
“We become less emotionally intelligent when we enter the workplace, because of all of the norms of ‘act professional,’” according to Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, the William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “In the workplace you’re supposed to just focus on the task and not the people–but that’s no longer an option.”
Sanchez-Burks spoke with Kristen Bellstrom, the features editor of Fortune, about how the pandemic has strained the old playbook for emotional management. He made the argument, during the recent From Day One conference on authentic leadership, that leaders must recognize how employees bring a diversity of moods to work each day–and learn how to respond with understanding and empathy.
Sanchez-Burks traced the concept of “be professional” all the way back to the early days of the country’s founding. Puritan pilgrims who arrived from England believed hard work was part of their worldly calling and were open to doing business with people unlike them. “In order to do business with strangers, you have to put aside emotions and focus on the task,” Sanchez-Burks pointed out. “The research shows this has not gone away–there’s still a notion that to be professional means to put aside as much as possible, like relationships or emotions, while working.”
Hundreds of years later the religious element of work has dissipated, but the emotion-free workplace largely remains. Sanchez-Burks noted that emotional management today often relies on just two strategies: sharing a “one for all” pep talk or sounding the alarm to raise the stakes in the workplace. Neither, he believes, are effective at getting through to employees.
Instead, leaders must learn to navigate a workplace’s emotional landscape, as he wrote recently in a piece for MIT Sloan Management Review. “Emotional landscape simply refers to the tenor and tempo of the collective emotion, the diversity of the emotion,” said Sanchez-Burks. “How homogeneous is it, how diverse is it, how is it changing?” It’s a careful balance between one-on-one attention and assuming that everyone is the group must feel the same way.
For the past year, the Covid-19 crisis has forced leaders to become more attuned to the emotional landscape of their workforce–whether they were prepared or not. “We’re having a seismic shift in how much yearning there is for emotions to be recognized and a seismic shift in the need for organizations to address it,” Sanchez-Burks said.
So how can organizations address it while also navigating challenges of remote work? Sanchez-Burks mentioned one company that integrates 15 minutes for games into its virtual meetings and sets aside a budget for programming on issues that employees care about. He spoke of one executive who studied her employees’ home backdrops for clues to their affinities–and used that information for choosing thoughtful gifts. An employee with a shoe collection in their background, for example, received a Nike gift certificate. As workers return to offices, Sanchez-Burks said employees should be encouraged to display family photos or mementos that are important to them.
There are also simple techniques for emotionally astute management that shouldn't be underestimated. Sanchez-Burks stressed the value of listening, and pointed to a Harvard Business Review report by professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John on the importance of following up with thoughtful questions. “You're signaling in a very authentic way that you’re attuned to the other person,” Sanchez-Burks said.
Leaders need to make room for the fact that employees might respond with different emotions to the same development. “Giving voice, without forcing a particular voice on people, is a delicate dance,” he said. “We need to make legitimate that people have different reactions and very different emotional experiences. If we can make that normative, it no longer should be surprising or uncomfortable to express these unique emotions.”
Sanchez-Burks shared the Emotional Aperture Measure he designed to assess someone’s ability to accurately identify the emotions of people individually vs. in a group. “Research consistently shows you could be good at one but not the other,” he pointed out. “Taking one of these assessments gives you a sense of where you are, and then working at that.” Executive coaching can often support this work, he said.
Sanchez-Burks said he isn’t sure if the seismic shift caused by Covid-19 will result in an enduring focus on the emotional landscape of employees. But he notes, “My work on emotions is much easier now than it’s ever been. It’s not really been a topic people felt [was] a high priority–and now people want to understand what is going on.” He continued, “That barrier is done. Now it’s a matter of, ‘What do I do with this, and how do I get better?’”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.