Power up the emotive engine in your workplace

Not an insurmountable task: Strengthening corporate culture need not be daunting. (Deloitte)
Not an insurmountable task: Strengthening corporate culture need not be daunting. (Deloitte)
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By Anthony Abbatiello, Head of Deloitte’s Leadership and Culture Practices

There’s rising concern in companies about workplace cultures misaligned with strategies. Eighty-seven percent of executives surveyed for Deloitte’s annual Human Capital Trends report put “culture and engagement” as an important challenge, the highest of all HR-related issues. Too often, executives develop sophisticated strategies, but the organization is slow to change entrenched habits and put new visions into practice.

Many leaders see the problem, but their attempts to shift the culture often get nowhere. They make rational appeals and change the performance incentives—but can sometimes seem to neglect the emotional side of change. Usually they give up and leave their culture on cruise control. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

From marketplace to workplace

Many marketers understand that emotions are the driving force of human behavior, more than rational calculation. “Emotions,” as the columnist David Brooks summarized, “are not separate from reason. They are the foundation of reason, because they tell us what to value.”

Leaders need to inspire employees toward the larger value they’ll create. When employees have an emotional stake in the company’s success, they’ll push through a new strategy despite obstacles.

This is true even of the Millennial generation. They may love their electronic devices, but as ad executive Kevin Roberts recently pointed out, engaging them takes “Big Data plus big emotion.”

Making it real with emotions

To address these emotional connections, it’s vital to focus on what we call “value events.” These are the handful of underlying actions that drive a disproportionate amount of value in a company. On the list might be the sales process, R&D decision-making, succession management, or annual planning meetings. Emotional messaging here isn’t something that senior leaders can simply delegate to Human Resources with some detailed verbiage. Employees need to not just see but also feel the new culture.

Companies can make the emotional connection in a variety of ways. One way is to align their workforce’s desired behaviors and attributes with their business strategy. This way, they can promote specific actions and reward specific behaviors. Then, leaders can tell personal stories around these behaviors. As screenwriter Robert McKee points out, stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.” And they can highlight the deeds of individual employees who are already making the change. In doing so, the culture campaign turns into something of a movement, not just one more corporate initiative.

A large pharmaceutical manufacturer was struggling through a turnaround. A culture of blame was driving many employees to offer only a “safe” performance. The company launched “share your story,” a series of open lunches and office hours where executives discussed the company’s mission and its challenges, and the new behaviors needed. They talked about how they had taken chances to move the company in a new direction – despite risks to their personal standing in the company. Their stories helped drive a new willingness in the organization to make changes.

Leaving a culture on cruise control can be a recipe for stagnation and decline. By connecting emotionally with the organization, leaders can actively manage their culture to drive critical business outcomes.

Learn more about Deloitte’s perspective on Workplace Culture: deloitte.com/culturepath

 This article was produced by Deloitte and not by the Quartz editorial staff.