Emotions At Work: Insights From Buurtzorg, Handelsbanken, and Decathlon

Written by in Bucket list
- 6 min read

Congratulations, you have a new job! You have more responsibility. You work more hours. Colleagues can call you for help in your time off.  To top it all, they know exactly what you’re doing. Like, they can see every mistake you make. Lucky you!

You might think that all this would lead to increased stress, and flight behaviour. But, according to our research with employees at three self-managing organizations (Decathlon, Handelsbanken, and Buurtzorg) that is totally wrong. Indeed, the opposite is the case, for example: “We could never work again in an organization that is organized differently to Buurtzorg. We love it here!”

Isn’t that weird? How could it possibly be that employees feel happier and less stressed, while doing more work and taking on more responsibility?

To find out we need to understand more about emotions, and especially about emotions in organizations. Unlike pop-management books, I’d like to use academic papers as a source. But please stay with me. I invite you to join me on an emotional journey!

Emotions 101

Before we go into depth, here is some background on emotions and how they work.

The ‘Organismic Model’ is one of the first attempts to capture the concept of emotions. It was based upon the work of Darwin, Freud and James, all of whom agreed that emotions are a biological process with a signal function—something that prepares us for action.

For example: You see a threatening animal with big teeth -> Be scared -> RUN!!!

As Darwin might have liked, this model evolved. It became ‘The Interaction Model’ which kept the biological aspect but added social entry. According to Fineman, Gabriel & Sims, the added influence of social context, makes people react differently.

For example: A call-centre representative is angry with a screaming customer. When the customer calms down and apologises, the call-centre rep. says; ‘I understand’, even though the emotion she feels is completely different. She withholds her anger, probably because she knows it is ‘professional’ behaviour demanded by her job.

Hochschild would describe the effort the call-centre representative makes as “emotional labour”. By which she means “The management of feelings to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display”; in this case a display that is fit for the specific social context.

Hochschild was also one of the first to theorize about emotions in organizations. Her ‘New Social Theory’ kept some aspects of the earlier models, but highlighted some major differences.

“It is not simply true that the malleable aspect of emotion is “social” (the focus of the interactional theorists) and that the unmalleable aspect of emotion is its biological link to action (the focus of the organismic theorists). Rather, the unmalleable aspect of emotion (which is what we try to manage) is also social.” (Hochschild).

What does this mean?

Imagine the same threatening animal with big teeth is here again, except this time you’ve heard from your colleagues it is actually not so scary after all. One of them even stroked it. There is now no reason to be scared. The animal didn’t change, but the (emotional) signal did, and it did so because of an external influence.

Emotions in organizations

So why all this talk about emotions? We work, and work asks for people to be rational in order to make good decisions, right? Wrong! Many academics have shown that emotions have great influence on decision-making. Some argue that over 90% of the decisions we make are irrational. So if you think that work is always rational, think again.

Stephen Fineman, an influential researcher of emotion in organizations, tried to capture the intensity of lived emotions by describing organizations as “emotional arenas”.

According to him, and others, emotion can be found everywhere within an organization: within objects (Fineman), between people (Fineman, Goffman, Hochschild, Theodosius). And within the body, like tightening of the chest, or dryness in the mouth, when you get really angry (Fineman, Goffman, Johnson & Johnson). And sometimes emotions can come out of thin air, as in the smelly factory around the corner (Fineman).

In his books, Fineman says emotions can be socially constructed. This perspective focuses on how feelings, thoughts and sensations are labelled and displayed, and the social and cultural contexts that provide the vocabularies and rules of emotion.

He says emotions are produced and reproduced by all forms of discursive and institutional practices, like family, TV programs, films, schools, the internet, the Corporate Rebels Blog, religious authorities, organizations, governments, and even one’s own experiences of emotions during a specific task.

What this can lead to is a person recognizes a situation and knows that, based on what he learned from discursive and institutional practice, a certain emotion should be felt.

Let me use this highly fictive example to illustrate; “I’ve never read any scientific articles, but the people I hang out with all think science is boring, and that scientists need to get real jobs. So even the idea that this Corporate Rebels post is full of scientific material makes me feel bored. I’ll go do something else. (And will therefore not be offended by this example, because I will not read the article beyond this point).”

Can you think of other examples? Perhaps “I hate Mondays”, “I hate my boss”, “Work is not supposed to be fun!”, “You can’t fail!”?

Emotions in self-managing organizations

Based on the social constructionist perspective of emotions in organizations it is hard to pinpoint why the employees of Decathlon, Handelsbanken and Buurtzorg experience less stress. To find the exact reason, more research needs to be done. In the meantime, I’d like to speculate.

What is interesting is that the employees I spoke to mentioned the work itself did not change much. But what did change was the social context they did it in. Somehow the emotions connected to certain experiences changed in this new social context, making employees perceive the same experiences in a totally different ways.

Two examples:

  • From “If you fail, you get fired” (Scary!) to “Failing helps me grow and become better” (Happy!).
  • From: “I can get a call and have to go to work anytime, I never feel as if I have time off” to “My colleagues will only call me when there is really no other solution, and I’d be happy to help them with that”.

Do you recognize this? Or do you have any feedback, personal examples or questions? Leave a reaction in the comments and I’d be happy to react.

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