Measure emotions to understand engagement

There is quite alot of discussion about the importance or otherwise of employee engagement to productivity and performance of individuals at work. There is correlational data which suggests organisations with high levels of engagement (however that is defined and measured) have higher levels of productivity, discretionary effort or job satisfaction. There is much less data on the causal link between employee engagement and productivity, performance and effort, however.

We can’t really explain engagement at a group level

Moreoever, attempts to measure engagement levels at any point in time are very problematic for organisations. That is because there is a huge variance in how people are feeling moment to moment, day to day. For instance, daily diary studies have shown the amount of total variance in work engagement that can be explained through within-person fluctuations range from 28% to 72% (Xanthopoulou & Bakker, 2013). In which case organisations need to be quite stringent and methodical in the way they collect employee engagement data and treat this data once collected with a degree of caution. Moreover, rather than make some blanket attempt at raising engagement levels across a ‘failing’ unit or organisation, an organisation might be better advised to take time to understand the implications and subtle nuances of any change in engagement levels.

What about looking at emotions?

One consideration might be to look at how individuals experience work and how their emotions impact their ‘engagement’ or performance at work. Staw and Barsade (1993) found that MBAs who reported more positive emotions were more accurate and careful in decision making tasks and more interpersonally effective in leaderless group discussions. Their experiment is important because it measured work output through an in-tray exercise and suggested a causal relationship such that productivity improves when well being (and positive emotion) is high. If this could be generalised into the world of day to day work, this would imply that increasing positive emotions would lead to increases in performance. Given that Staw and Barsade’s research took place 20 years ago it is interesting to note that there has been very little empirical research on performance and emotions in the workplace since. This is possibly because of the myriad of issues which impact upon an individual’s experience of work and the difficulty in isolating emotions in the workplace. Nevertheless, ignoring emotions, both positive and negative, when discussing employee engagement, seems self defeating as they have such a big impact on how we experience and engage with our work more generally.

Happy workers deliver benefits

Emotions are seen as useful markers of optimal well being and experiencing more positive than negative emotions contributes to our happiness. There are significant benefits to encouraging and enabling positive emotions. Happy workers take less time off, are less stressed and demonstrate higher levels of creativity, organisational citizenship, cooperation, creativity, problem solving and performance (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Providing frequent opportunities to experience positive emotions and thereby increase happiness is a way in which organisations can increase workforce positivity and engagement.

Positivity can aid creativity

Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory (1998) proposes that individuals can build their thought processes through frequent experience of positive emotions. When experiencing positive emotions, individuals create more suggestions and think more globally or broadly, helping with creative problem solving. Positive emotions also provide an antidote to negative emotions and help individuals to recover from an emotionally challenging or negative experience helping us bounce back from negative experiences, such as a poor performance review or a confrontational interaction with an unhappy customer. She found that two emotions in particular, joy and contentment, can undo the after affect of negative emotions.

Happy individuals impact organisational happiness levels

Individual happiness impacts upon organisational happiness through a concept known as emotional contagion. Emotional contagion occurs when individuals mimic another person’s emotional expression and then experience these emotions themselves. This occurs with both negative and positive emotions. Because there has been research to suggest negative emotions have a greater impact than positive emotions (‘bad is bigger’), it is easy to see how a negative mood can spiral within an organisation. Clearly we need to raise our own levels of self awareness around how we are feeling to understand our potential impact on those around others. Trying to disguise how we are feeling doesn’t really work either: through a process of emotional leakage, others can easily pick up how we are really feeling. For instance, recent developments in neuroscience which include the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have demonstrated brain to brain transmission of emotions: when an individual feels and appears uneasy about something, others will experience that unease, even when they did not witness the situation (Boyatzis, 2012).

Organisational values can make us conflicted

Organisational culture can have an impact on emotions.  Organisations which encourage a certain style of working are likely to suppress emotions which in turn can have a negative effect as suppressing emotions, whether positive or negative, is associated with high stress. Ironically, carefully worded value statements encouraging us to be happy and upbeat at all times, might well be having the opposite effect.

We all have ups and downs

Both negative and positive emotions need to be expressed and ‘aired’. Individuals’ emotions ‘wax’ and ‘wane’ throughout the day and we need to recognise this and not always expect everyone to be ‘up’ every moment of the day. For instance, a teacher is required to be ‘on show’ when delivering to her class but needs opportunities to let off steam and experience different emotions in the staff room. Encouraging individuals to celebrate success and recall happier times, will help build the emotional fortitude to enable individuals to get through the tough times and prevent negative spirals or emotions.

Specifically, there are some positive psychology interventions (PPI) introduced into organisations which are delivering some great results:

  • Mindfulness training– mindfulness helps in a couple of ways: firstly it relieves stress and therefore reduces the potential for negative, inappropriate emotional outbursts (which are spread through emotional contagion); secondly, it raises self awareness as individuals are more in touch with their emotions through the mindfulness techniques.
  • Strengths based coaching – a focus on strengths encourages positive emotions and a feel good factor. Working to one’s strengths also raises an individual’s level of well being.
  • Encouraging the practice of daily habits such as recalling ‘what went well’ at the end of each day builds positive emotions and recalling it means you get to experience more than once