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Exploring the push and pull of two emotional cultures

May 8, 2017   /   by Damian Cristodero

Portrait of Mandy O'Neill

O'Neill. Photo by Creative Services.

Mandy O’Neill has a message for managers who oversee a team of workers.

“In any organization you need to pay attention to your [employees'] emotional culture,” said the associate professor of management in George Mason University's School of Business. “You want to develop an awareness and do a systematic assessment, but then do micro or macro interventions at each level.”

O’Neill, also a senior scientist at George Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, knows what she’s talking about, having researched emotional cultures in various organizations and industries for more than 10 years. Her most recent study involved an examination of firefighters in a large metropolitan area in the southeast United States.

With a team of research assistants, O’Neill observed and interviewed 68 crews in 27 fire stations. Her findings, published in the Academy of Management Journal with co-author Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, illustrate the push and pull of two emotional cultures—joviality and companionate love—and how they affect the camaraderie and performance of firefighting teams.

First, though, let’s define terms. Joviality is the ability to have fun and take a joke. Companionate love, in O’Neill’s research, means the ability to show compassion and caring in times of need.

“It was important to look at how they operate in tandem,” O’Neill said, “how one emotion was the thing you needed to know to explain performance, but the other you needed to know to understand the implications for health and well-being.”

What did O’Neill find?

The crews high in joviality and companionate love were the most efficient in their jobs and in their lives outside of work.

Stations high in joviality had job enthusiasm, what O’Neill called “an indicator of high performance, but also increased risk-taking.” But if they were low in companionate love, interpersonal relationships suffered, at work and at home.

“This is where you hear about hazing or the most frightening frat house from your college days,” she said.

Stations high in companionate love but low in joviality seemed to lack enthusiasm for the job.

“You need the joviality to really see the performance implications,” she said.

And if stations had neither joviality nor companionate love, the culture seemed indifferent.

“One of the coolest things about emotions is unlike some abstract value that you read on a PowerPoint slide or in a management memo, emotions are nonverbal and contagious,” O’Neill said. “We have an inborn ability to recognize other’s emotions.”

All organizations “need to develop an emotional culture that allows employees to thrive,” she said.