Emotions and Culture – Drivers of Human Behavior
" I can't say I'm sorry enough. I'm sure I'll be criticized, but it's true. I felt awful. It wasn't my intention. […] It's not what I wanted to see or anyone to see."
These are the words of Shawn Thornton, a professional hockey player for the Boston Bruins, after attacking and injuring an opponent during a recent game. Suspended by the National Hockey League as punishment for his behavior, the consequences of Thornton’s actions affect him and his team.
Why did Thornton attack his opponent in the first place?
Based on his response—“It wasn’t my intention”—I suspect he allowed his emotions to take over. In other words, he was “emotionally hijacked.”
We’ve all had experiences of being emotionally hijacked, when strong emotions suddenly wield control of our behavior. Our response after the episode is usually the same as his, too: “I don’t know why I acted that way.”
Intense emotions can dominate our thinking and drive our actions—they are powerful sources of energy. In emergency or crisis situations, they work to keep us out of harm’s way: Fight, freeze, or flee. But in other, less noble situations, they cause us to react in ways we later regret (“I felt awful”).
Having the emotional awareness and insight to prevent or short circuit the hijacking process brought on by intense emotions is called emotional intelligence, a necessity in a world filled with situations that can easily give rise to intense emotions. Carefully handling strong emotions, rather than quickly giving into them, is critical in making reasoned decisions that work for us rather than against us.
I also believe an even more powerful force than emotions was involved in Thornton’s reaction that night, a force that oftentimes makes it difficult for individuals to navigate situations that ignite intense emotions: culture.
Suppose you are in a business meeting when a colleague pokes fun at your presentation. His comments are humorous but rude and uncaring. You might notice your muscles tensing and your mind racing. Will you walk over and throw your morning coffee in his face (fight)? Excuse yourself and leave the room (flee)? Or stand motionless, unable to respond (freeze)?
Since most office business cultures do not encourage, support, or condone physical attacks, you opt not to throw your coffee. What you decide to do instead is respond in an emotionally intelligent way: “Your comments leave me feeling put down and I’m not sure how they have contributed to helping us find a solution. In the future, it would be helpful for me if you could be more specific and constructive with you comments and feedback.”
Thornton’s attack took place in a business environment, or culture—professional hockey—that encourages, condones, and supports fighting as a means of solving disputes. For many years, hockey teams employed players for their fighting skills rather than their athletic abilities, according to Seth Wickersham in his article “Fighting the Goon Fight.” It was the role of these enforcers to protect their team’s star players from opponent harassment while also goading the opponent’s star players into a fight.
Ben Livingston, a sports journalist, supports this theory in his article “The Bizarre Culture of Hockey.”
“The only constant in fighting is that you are assessed a penalty for doing it,” he writes. “There exists a bizarre practice of allowing fighting to occur, while at the same time penalizing the participants for doing it. This has lead to it being called a ‘semi-legal’ practice.”
Another potent factor in becoming emotionally hijacked - The emotions of others. In Thornton’s case, this meant the taunting and yelling stirred up by his fans. When a fight breaks out in hockey, fans cheer furiously for someone to be physically punished. Many, in fact, are drawn to the sport for its violence.
Though Thornton was penalized for his part in the incident, his co-conspirators—the fans and the culture of professional hockey—escaped without penalty. As in any emotionally intense situation, Thornton’s behavior was the tip of the iceberg.
It is the stronger influences and motivators—those that support and permit transgressions like his—that remain below the surface, where the culture of hockey exists.
Rules and regulations are never a primary factor in human behavior unless they are in full alignment with a culture’s mission, values and strategic objectives. Rules merely provide cover for an organization so they can identify and blame transgressors and escape accountability and culpability.
We’ve seen this with the likes of Enron, British Petroleum (BP), Massey Mines and most recently, the world’s major banks. All professed to be motivated by high ethical standards and comprehensive safety rules and regulations, but the cultures that have dominated these businesses runs contrary to their hollow words.
It is emotions and culture that have the greatest effect on human behavior and any organization that attempts to influence and enforce positive behavior with regulations alone will remain vulnerable to disruption, loss, and plenty of emotional hijacking.
Thornton said, ”I can’t say I’m sorry enough,” but the burden and responsibility of his actions do not sit entirely on his shoulders. It’s difficult for any employee to make the “right” choices when organizational rules give direction but the culture of the organization is ambiguous about enforcement and in some cases turns a blind eye to negative or unsafe behavior because it supports the organization’s explicit desire for profit, production, entertainment, and risk taking.
The NHL, in which fisticuffs remain an integral part of the sport’s culture, penalizes individuals for fighting, but the behavior of its players remains unchanged, because below the surface enforcers are rewarded and celebrated for their transgressions by fans, teammates, and the media.
Banks will not change their culture of risk taking for profits when CEO’s get bonuses and salary increments after being penalized billions of dollars for violating regulations. And safety will always be secondary when employees are pushed to keep production up at all costs.
The unfortunate aspect of these “Trojan Horse Cultures” is that they present and say one thing, but inside, where true culture resides, are the drivers of behavior, which often put their employees at the lower rungs of the organization in harms way as they attempt to navigate between the rules and what the culture is condoning and endorsing.
I’ve worked for the past ten years assisting organizations in identifying where there is culture misalignment and working with them to restore and or build cultures that authentically and consistently align with their mission, values and strategic objectives. The work is hard, but the rewards are significant and produce results that are sustainable and profitable. Most importantly, they become organizations in which leaders and employees feel pride, take ownership and work jointly to insure success, and where leaders and employees feel accountable and safe in stating. “I can’t say I’m sorry enough.”
I have a theory about values, leadership, and workforce engagement that is related to a study I read on brain imagining and sacred values. The study, titled, “The Price of Your Soul: Neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values,” was conducted by Gregory Burns, PhD, Director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University. Through the study Burns found that “sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits."
The study gave participants an option to disavow any of their personal value statements for money. Disavowing a statement meant they could receive as much as $100 by simply agreeing to sign a document stating the opposite of what they said they believed. The disavowing was interpreted as the value statement not being sacred to the person. Statements that the participants refused to disavow were classified as being personally sacred.
Brain imaging indicated that scared and non-sacred values activated different areas of the brain. The scared values activated areas associated with right and wrong and the non-sacred values activated areas related to pleasure and rewards. In addition, the researchers found that the amygdala region became activated when a person’s sacred values were challenged.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls our “911” stress alert reactions of fight, flee or freeze when it perceives a threat to our well-being. It is also associated with our emotions, particularly emotions connected to perceived negative experiences, which over time creates a filing cabinet of negative memories. In our modern world people usually don’t react physically by fighting or fleeing, they react emotionally. We fight by arguing or being stubborn; we flee by disengagingmentally and emotionally, which lessens commitment; and we freeze by shutting down our creativity. It is emotional reactions like these with which a leader must contend. Therefore, developing one’s emotional intelligence is critical to effectively counter and minimize these stress responses. Organizations would be wise to establish emotional intelligence as a leadership prerequisite if they want to reap the benefit from higher levels of workforce engagement
I believe that workforce engagement issues are a result of leaders and organizations not operating from a foundation of sacred values. The Institute for Global Ethics did exhaustive surveying and research in an attempt to identify what core moral and ethical values were held in highest regard by people and communities throughout the world. No matter where they went, they found the same answers: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion. In essence, these are core sacred values.
Applying the brain imaging research from the sacred values study, it would seem that if any of these five core values were in essence disavowed by anyone – in this instance, a leader – it would activate the “right and wrong” areas in the brains of his or her employees and at the same time activate their amygdale, putting each into either a fight, freeze or flee state of reaction. The result could be a strong feeling on part of an employee to not trust this person and to feel that they have been “wronged,” both of which will negatively impact engagement, commitment, performance, and most importantly, trust.
Values authenticity is the core issue. Leaders and organizations who – within their heart, head, and gut – are not authentically aligned and committed to these core sacred values will never be able to fully capture the hearts and minds of their workforce nor their stakeholders.
The Gallup Organization, which has made a science of employee engagement, reported that in the third quarter of 2011, “Seventy-one percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive.” This means that 71% of the country’s workforce is emotionally reacting by fighting, fleeing or freezing.Why? Because they believe that their sacred values are absent or being disavowed. A leader cannot drive workforce engagement if he or she does not authentically hold these five core values as sacred.
When I’ve had the opportunity to talk, or should I say listen, to employees, these five values are at the core of their concerns and issues, and are the crux of their disengagement:
These same sacred values are at the heart of the issues that are polarizing and creating conflict in this country and around the world and thwarting people from finding solutions to their most pressing problems:
Leaders from all sectors of our society must develop a deeper understanding and sensitivity of how these core sacred values dynamically hold relationships, teams, organizations, and countries together, all be it sometimes in a chaotic way. When organizational and political leaders focus on and subscribe to the perspective of cost versus benefit, there undoubtedly will be tension and that tension will give rise to conflict and disengagement.
In his book Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder states, “Successful organizations must require moral courage in their leaders and then work assiduously that it is rarely needed.” I agree, but more importantly leaders must take on the hard work – the work of authentically committing to these sacred core values and then modeling moral courage when they are challenged. To create a highly engaged workforce leaders and organizations would be better served to first look in-ward and to evaluate the depth of their commitment to these core sacred values.
Authenticity and Moral Courage are two of the Seven Hallmarks of Relationship–Centered Leadership. If you have an interest in building workforce engagement and becoming a high-performing leader, we invite you to explore the Relationship–Centered Leadership program. For more information on this program download a description from the Free Downloads tab
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Since I enjoy and dabble in photography, I tend to agree with it. However, there are times when words can make all the difference. This is especially true in the workplace, where the words used by management have the tendency to snake through the office and then settle, over time creating an intricate picture of the health of an organization and its employees.
“If you believe it, you’ll see it.”
The first time I heard this nugget of wisdom was from Dewitt Jones in his film, Celebrate What’s Right with the World. At the time I thought it was a neat concept, but really didn’t believe it would have much impact on how one would choose to interact with one’s world. That was in 2003 and today, I must admit, these seven words do make a difference. They make a difference in my life, and everyday I see how they impact the lives of many others – particularly in a person’s willingness to change and take risks despite evidence that a current venture may not be working.
The alternative view is: “If I see it, I’ll believe it.”
The same seven words, but the order makes all the difference. And depending upon which order you subscribe to, it will impact your life and the lives of others in significant ways. For instance, I recently had the opportunity to encounter and observe how dramatic a difference these two views can have on one’s power of influence and leadership when trying to improve employee performance and engagement.
I’m currently assisting two different organizations in improving their workforce engagement and performance. Phase one of the project involves extensive interviews with management staff and employees to get firsthand feedback on what issues are affecting performance and engagement, and to listen to input on what could be done from their perspective to address these issues and concerns. The goal in both organizations is to address specific factors that are negatively impacting organizational climate in regard to employee engagement and performance. The vision at both organizations is to create a culture of engagement and performance that will sustain itself and withstand the foreseen and unforeseen challenges of the 21st century.
The CEOs of these two organizations are very bright and experienced individuals. These attributes, along with their extensive expertise in the technical aspects of their industry, helped them rise to the top levels of their organizations. If you were to review their resumes you wouldn’t notice any significant differences; both on paper are highly qualified. And both are sincere about wanting to succeed in achieving their goals and vision. The differences begin to emerge as you interact with them and begin to notice their particular view or philosophy on motivation, work and change.
One of the organizations has a history of workforce disengagement, which is documented in employee surveys and in operational metrics such as turnover, accidents and injuries and sick time utilization. During the employee interviews many employees used the phase, “I don’t think the leadership of this organization cares about us.” Others would identify specific areas such as not caring about our safety or developing our skills. One person stated, “They say they care, but their actions say the opposite.”
In the debrief session with the leadership team, one manager commented, “We are a group that is very driven by data and we don’t see any evidence that this workforce cares or wants to improve.”
After the debrief meeting we reviewed a philosophy and approach that attacks the causes of disengagement and performance. Much of it is based on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s research and work in Self-Determination Theory; the work of Paul Marciano in Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT; and Winning With A Culture of Recognition by Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine. One core element of each of these models and approaches, which research supports a positive return on investment, is the use and implementation of appreciation and strategic recognition initiatives. After the review, one of the managers said, “I’ll believe it, when I see it.” Rich the CEO followed that comment with, “There’s been very little that we can appreciate and recognize about this group.”
The other organization had a history of what one employee described as a tyrannical approach to leading and employee engagement. A comment that was attributed to the former leader was, “If your employees like you, than you’re not a good manager.” For the last few years the organization has been under new leadership and has seen a rise in all the metrics and indicators that something positive has taken hold.
During our interview with Ron the CEO, he commented, “The tone of this organization starts at the top. If I model the behaviors I want from my employees, they will respond in kind. If I show them I care about their safety, they will care. If I set high expectations for myself, than they will also accept and deliver on the expectation we set for them.”
One employee made the following comment, “Everyday Ron tells me he cares about me.” Literally this is not a true statement. This employee works the second shift and in reality only sees Ron on his “walk-abouts” and at employee meetings. How could he make the claim that Ron tells him everyday that he cares about him? Part of the answer is the power of, “When I believe it, I’ll see it.” Ron has influenced his employees through his words and actions that he believes in them and they respond reciprocally. Because he believes Ron cares, he hears Ron everyday telling him that he cares.
When we reviewed our program, and in particular the initiatives on appreciation and strategic recognition, Ron’s response was, “I can do a lot better job in this area. When can we get started?”
The difference is in the order of the seven words. Rich and his team believe that “When they see it, they’ll believe it,” which shifts the burden of accountability, risk and change on to the employees. The attitude of the employees is, “Why should we change?” Both the leadership team and the employees have adopted the same philosophy: “When I see it, I’ll believe it.”
Ron’s belief is that if he models the behavior he wants, he’ll see it in his team and employees. He believes that people want to be engaged and want to perform; “I just have to give them the reasons and permission to do it.” Ron stated in our first interview, “The tone is set from the top.” He accepts full responsibility. He doesn’t shift the responsibility to his employees to prove to him that they deserve his respect.
What Ron gets in return is what Rich and his team wants! If Rich and his team would be courageous enough to change the order of those seven words and take the risk of putting that belief into action, the road to achieving an engaged workforce would have fewer potholes.
Carrots and Sticks Don't Work, Paul Marciano
Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci
Winning with a Culture of Recognition, E. Mosley and D. Irvine
Time: April 26- 28, 2011