Understanding your team’s cognitive and emotional culture

Most people think about company culture as team building events and ping pong tables, but there is more going on under the surface than most people realize. Culture is shaped by how all employees, from the top executives to the interns, show up every day, but that is something very few companies are aware of or focus on despite having such a massive impact on creativity and innovation. In this episode, we will explore the 3 basic parts of how everyone experiences an emotion, a breakdown of cognitive and emotional cultures, and what anyone can do to start to change your culture.

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In my ongoing quest to work to understand what makes great teams different from everyone else, I wanted to talk today about one of those big mysteries – team culture. I think most people think about team culture as birthday parties, team-building events, and what channels you have on Slack. But it goes much deeper than that and there is a lot more going on under the surface than most people realize. Before you decide that this maybe doesn’t sound like something that applies to you – this is for everyone who is a part of any team or any culture because I think this is something that everyone should be aware of. In this episode, we will explore the basics of how everyone experiences an emotion, the two types of primary team cultures, the multiple sub-cultures, and what anyone can do to change understand and change them.

How we experience emotion

Before we get to understanding team culture, let’s start with the basics of understanding how a person experiences emotion. I wanted to do that because obviously teams are made up of people so you need to understand them as a foundation for what will follow. There are three components of every emotion you and everyone else feels.

All emotions begin with a Subjective experience.
Basic emotions are expressed by all individuals regardless of culture or upbringing, but the stimulus that produces them can be highly subjective that can range from something as simple as seeing a color to something as major as losing a loved one or getting married. No matter how intense the experience is, it can provoke a number of emotions and those emotions will feel different to everyone.

We then react with a Physiological response to the subjective experience
This physiological response is the result of the autonomic nervous system’s reaction to the emotion we’re experiencing. The autonomic nervous system controls our involuntary bodily responses and regulates our fight-or-flight response. So this is how we physically experience the emotion and how our bodies create voluntary and involuntary Behavioral responses which is the actual expression of the emotion.

The behavioral expression can include a smile, a grimace, a laugh or a sigh, along with many other reactions depending on societal norms and personality. Think about this like the ‘tells’ you will see in someone when they play poker or how a negotiator can read if someone is telling the truth or not.

2 base corporate cultures

Team culture is then defined on this framework as to how a group of people works together with the resulting experiences creating the subjective experience we just talked about that is the daily stimulus that will provoke an emotion.

The physiological response then gets defined by if you and your team will fight to make change or the flight response kicks in and people start to quit.

You can then see the behavioral response in how people act on the team but the collective behavioral response if the emotional culture of the team.

There are 2 types of team culture that are separate but intertwined. The first of Cognitive culture which defines how a team or company thinks. Then there is the Emotional culture that defines how the team is feeling, what the company values, their leadership style, how they invest in their people, and the type of work they can produce. These two cultures are also very closely tied to the practical and emotional states of trust we talked about back in episode 88.

Let’s go through each in more detail.

4 types of cognitive culture

Let’s start with cognitive culture because when people talk about corporate culture, they are typically referring to cognitive culture but they don’t know it. Cognitive culture is the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that serve as a guide for the team to thrive. It sets the tone for how employees think and behave at work

For instance, how customer-focused, innovative, team-oriented, or competitive they are or should be.
Cognitive culture is often conveyed verbally.
It also usually drives the practical part of the trust equation.

Market culture

Focus: Results

A Market culture focuses is on results, pure and simple.
In this type of culture, people are highly goal-focused and leaders are tough and demanding in order to achieve the success metrics the company has defined.
It can be a high-pressure environment, but simultaneously rewarding when that hard work pays off with real, measurable results.

Pros of this culture type:
Employees are driven and highly motivated to achieve their goals.
Improved performance for the company, because everybody is committed to success.

Cons of this culture type:
Encouraging constant competition can quickly lead to a toxic work environment.
Employees can experience stress and even burnout as a result of the constant pressure so you will often see higher than average turnover rates.

Hierarchy culture

Focus: Process and structure

A hierarchy culture is structured and process-oriented.
In this type of culture, most activities and decisions are dictated by existing procedures rather than freethinking.
Leaders are in place to ensure that their teams run like well-oiled machines, and they place the bulk of their focus on stability, results, and reliable delivery.

Pros of this culture type:
There’s a lot of clarity in communication and expectations because nearly everything is prescribed.
Employees experience a greater sense of security and predictability because of all the process.

Cons of this culture type:
Prioritizing the process over people can make the environment feel inflexible and even unsupportive.
Too much rigidity can stifle innovation and growth because people are afraid to think outside of the box.
You have almost no leaders and all managers who just want to Shepard work from point A to point B according to the process.

Create culture

Focus: Entrepreneurialism

A Create culture lives by the “move fast and break things” philosophy.
This type of culture fosters a very entrepreneurial type of environment, where people are encouraged to take risks and aggressively pursue off-the-wall ideas. As a result, there is often a lot of innovation, learning, and growth for people, teams, and the company.

Pros of this culture type:
A lot of
innovation and growth.
Increased psychological safety, which means employees feel secure taking risks

Cons of this culture type:
It can feel a
lack of stability because so much is invested in new initiatives.
There is a sense of intimidation for new members who don’t have the expertise to work quickly and aggressively.
Can get lost and only focus on the “new” letting details, refinement, and depth become secondary

Collaborative culture

Focus: Teamwork and togetherness

A Collaborative culture wants you to work with people who feel like family and have fun doing it.
These cultures offer a very friendly working environment where things like relationships, morale, participation, and consensus take center stage. Managers are more mentors than figureheads who dish out instructions and reprimands.

Pros of this culture type:
You get happy people and teams who enjoy working together.
Improved communication, energy, and risk-taking because people feel like they are heard and supported.

Cons of this culture type:
If it is all collaboration and everyone has been pleased all the time then productivity and creativity become compromised.
Inability to make tough decisions or give coaching and leadership because other people’s feelings are of such high priority.

3 types of emotional cultures

Cognitive culture is undeniably important to an organization’s success but it’s only part of the story.

Emotional culture is the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work. More importantly, it also defines which emotions you are better off suppressing. This is a culture people rarely talk about unless you are a part of a high maturity or high performing team

Emotional culture tends to be conveyed through small but consistent nonverbal cues and gestures, facial expressions,s and body language that express emotion rather than big and sudden outbursts of feelings. Countless studies have shown there is a significant impact of how emotions affect teams, companies, and company performance.

Positive emotional cultures lead to better performance, quality, and customer service, etc. and this is true across all roles and industries. While negative emotions such as group anger, sadness, fear, etc. lead to negative outcomes, including poor performance and high turnover.

There are 3 different types of emotional culture and again there are some big differences between each of them.
– Happiness
– Fear
– Authenticity

Culture of happiness

Focus: Joy and belonging

A culture of happiness is just what is sounds like where people love to come to work. A culture of joy is rare to find and even more rare to find in an authentic form. There are a few obvious examples here like Disney.

Pros of this culture type:
It is a culture where you start with positive intent all the time and then work backward
There is an awareness and prioritization of emotional intelligence
These companies are often much more aware of their customer experience and the company legacy

Cons of this culture type:
Can be faked or overdone so everyone is excepted to be happy all the time

Level of their work: Average to breakthrough.
This can be a great culture if the happiness is sincere and balanced to still let there be space for honesty and authenticity.

Culture of fear

Focus: Control and compliance

A culture of fear is one where employees are robbed of all of their power and independence in favor of compliance. This is easily the worst culture to work for and that is for obvious reasons just based on the name. The irony here is that this is a type of emotional culture but all emotions are suppressed as they can and will be used against you.

Leaders consistently demonstrate the lowest level of leadership maturity and propagate the culture of fear. They do this so no one can see those leaders don’t know what they are doing and don’t want anyone to get close enough to see this or question their decisions. If they do start to get close then those managers will threatened job security to keep people in line.

The funniest part of a culture of fear is that the leaders are so emotionally tone-deaf that they think they are great leaders who are doing great work. Sometimes they go through the motions of listening to the team but it never results in any real changes.

Pros of this culture type:
The only pros here are if you are a manager in a culture of fear because it allows you to be mediocre and be celebrated for it as long as you can keep everyone in line.

Cons of this culture type:
Leaders will use any tactic they can to maintain control over the company
You are seen as a resource and not a person so you are disposable at any time

Level of their work: Basic at best.
Since everyone is afraid, no one takes any risks, there is little teamwork and no trust. This can be seen in the work which is often deeply siloed and struggles to adopt even simple best practices.

Culture of authenticity

Focus: Acceptance and achievement

A culture of authenticity is one that values its’s people and wants them to be able to show up as themselves at work. In my experience, a culture of authenticity is easily the best culture to work for because as I have said before, showing up as your true self at work is often one of the most courageous and rebellious acts there is. Because of that, I believe that a culture of authenticity eats cultures of joy and fear for breakfast because it is so powerful.

Pros of this culture type:
People can be themselves
Workplaces, where employees can be authentic are more productive, creative, and innovative.

Cons of this culture type:
Can lose the ability to talk about difficult subjects
Many people will put on a fake happy face to fit in under peer pressure

Level of their work: Average to breakthrough.
Much like the culture of happiness, this can be a great culture if the authenticity is sincere and balanced to still let there be space for honesty and process.

How do you change it?

Harness what people already feel
Some employees will experience the desired emotions quite naturally.

Model the emotions you want to cultivate
A long line of research on emotional contagion shows that people in groups “catch” feelings from others through behavioral mimicry and subsequent changes in brain function.

Fake it till they feel it
If employees don’t experience the desired emotion at a particular moment, they can still help maintain their organization’s emotional culture.

Balance it
It’s also important to balance the emotional culture to operations and processes, including performance management systems.

Measure it
Companies have started using apps like Niko Niko to help individual employees and teams log their emotional

Implementation matters
Just like other aspects of organizational culture, emotional culture should be supported at all levels of the organization. The role of senior leaders and executives is to drive the culture. Leaders are often insufficiently aware of how much influence they have in creating an emotional culture. They often underestimate the importance of day-to-day modeling. Large, symbolic emotional gestures are powerful, but only if they are in line with your daily behavior. Though senior leaders set the first example and establish the formal rules, middle managers and frontline supervisors ensure that the emotional values are consistently practiced by others. Because one of the biggest influences on employees is their immediate boss, the suggestions that apply to senior executives also apply to those managers: They should ensure that the emotions they express at work reflect the chosen culture, and they should speak explicitly about what is expected from employees.

Final thought

Emotional culture is shaped by how all employees – from the top executives to the interns – show up every day. But it’s up to senior leaders to establish which emotions will help the organization thrive, model those emotions, and reward others for doing the same.

If not then they can not be surprised when the culture turns negative, turns into something they don’t want, or even worse where the emotional culture is one of emotional suppression.

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