Emotions provide insight into what motivates people and how to improve performance.

Although many companies display heightened concern for the well-being of their employees, not everyone is convinced that efforts to create and maintain a positive workplace actually pay off. However, to Sigal Barsade, the evidence is clear: Companies that want more satisfied employees and stronger performance need to invest in understanding what motivates people in their work lives and pay attention to the emotional side of organizational culture.

As an undergraduate at UCLA, Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, considered a career in clinical psychology before determining that she was most interested in having an impact on people’s well-being through organizational behavior. Over the past two decades she has studied a variety of topics, including group affect, emotional contagion, and loneliness in the workplace.

Through her research, Barsade has found that emotions influence not just employee wellness and engagement, but also business outcomes such as productivity and profitability. The findings, she says, have implications for startups and larger organizations alike and are relevant to everyone, from the senior management team to front-line workers.

MIT Sloan Management Review correspondent Frieda Klotz spoke with Barsade about her research on the role of emotional culture in organizations. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Management theorists have been talking about the importance of corporate culture for decades. You focus on what you call emotional culture. How is that different?

Barsade: When we generally speak about organizational culture, we speak about a recognized and acknowledged set of cognitions viewed as important for the group to enact to meet its goals. However, emotional culture is the set of emotions necessary for a group to enact to meet its goals.

But the importance of emotional culture is not just definitional. The type of emotional culture an organization or a department has — for example, whether it’s based on caring, optimism, or anxiety — predicts many important work outcomes, including employee absenteeism, teamwork, burnout, satisfaction, psychological safety, and objective performance outcomes like operating costs.

How did you become interested in examining the emotional part of culture?

Barsade: For a long time, emotions were viewed as noise, a nuisance, something to be ignored.

References

1. S.G. Barsade, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, no. 4 (Dec. 1, 2002): 644-675.

2. S.G. Barsade and O.A. O’Neill, “What’s Love Got to Do With It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-Term Care Setting,” Administrative Science Quarterly 59, no. 4 (Dec. 1, 2014): 551-598.