What are the most important emotions in the employee experience?


Customer emotions have become a hot topic of late. But if employee experience deeply influences customer experiences, why isn't there more focus on employee emotions too?

17th Oct 2022

Imagine this scenario: Ben works in a large multinational organisation. Last night he worked very late to deliver on a project, but he still feels obliged to turn up for work at 8AM just like any other day, and he certainly hasn’t heard to do otherwise from his manager… not today, not ever....

He has been working there for some years, but all that has earned him was a card at his desk with a post-it note to mark his anniversary at the company. He hardly ever gets praise, recognition, or a personal word from his manager. He also feels the organisation isn’t sharing the gains from the recent growth with him as his salary has barely changed for years, despite the rising cost of living. It’s not so hard to relate to Ben’s imaginative story, is it? Because that’s the reality for many employees.

In a previous article, I shared about our research which found certain emotions to be key drivers of business value and yet organisations are generally lacking a purposeful data and science-based strategy about how to evoke them in customers. I also shared the work of prof. Harry Reis, who spent his career studying what makes successful partner relationships. Why do some endure while others fall apart? Emotional aspects such as feeling understood, respected, supported and cared for were key for the longevity of our personal relationships. Now, if emotions are key to personal and business relationships, are they the key to employee engagement too? And if they are, which are the key emotions?

An American Psychological Association survey about work and well-being found that only about half of US workers feel their employers are open and upfront with them, and one-quarter of Americans say they simply don’t trust the companies they work for. This is a big deal because another research from professor Paul J. Zak shows that compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:

  • 74% less stress.
  • 106% more energy at work.
  • 50% higher productivity.
  • 13% fewer sick days.
  • 76% more engagement.
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives.
  • 40% less burnout .

While this relies on self-reported scores, interestingly, Paul and his team also found that employees earn an additional $6,450 a year (17% more), at companies in the highest quartile of trust, compared with those in the lowest quartile. In a highly competitive labour market, this can only occur if employees at high-trust companies are more productive and innovative, they say.

Other interesting insights come from Gallup’s meta-analysis of their data spanning several decades. Gallup has been doing countless employee engagement studies measuring employee engagement on behalf of many Fortune 500 companies. Gallup’s meta-analysis shows that high employee engagement is linked to higher productivity, better-quality products, and increased profitability. In addition, Gallup discovered the 12 most revealing questions associated with almost all the goals a typical manager would care about: the employees’ engagement, retention, productivity, and profitability - even the satisfaction of the organisation’s customers. Among those 12 are: 

  1. In the last seven days I have received recognition or praise for good work (i.e. implies a sense of belonging/feeling of a relationship).

  2. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person (implies caring).

  3. There is someone at work who encourages my development (implies understanding, caring).

  4. I have a best friend at work (implies relationship).

In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath make the observation about how similar the first three are to the questions professor Harry T. Reis pinned as predictors of personal relationships strength (i.e. understanding - my partner knows me; validation - my partner respects me; and caring - my partner is supportive of me). And in the meta-analysis of our database, we found those emotions to be key drivers of value for organisations. Employees want to feel recognition for their work, just like customers want to know that their custom over the years is appreciated and they are recognised as long-term members. This goes back to Maslow’s concept of a sense of belonging as a basic human need.

Then Question 2 talks about “care for me as a person” in the employee satisfaction questionnaire. Care is one of those key emotions that our research over the years has proven to be a key value driver for organisations. 

Question 3 also implies caring, this time about the development of the employee, while the last question looks at whether some deep personal relationships have been formed at work.

One of the most comprehensive reviews of the drivers of employee engagement comes from a report for the Institute of Employment Studies in which researchers Gemma Robertson-Smith and Carl Markwick make a comprehensive literature review of the studies on employee engagement. They find that there is no silver bullet when it comes to it, but nevertheless, some key aspects emerge more frequently than others. Their report cites a study by The Conference Board, which found that 26 different drivers of engagement were proposed in 12 largely consultancy-based studies of employee engagement. The most commonly reported drivers were trust and integrity, the nature of the job, the line of sight between individual performance and company performance, career growth opportunities, pride in the company, relationships with coworkers/team members, employee development, and personal relationship with one’s manager.

When I was reading the report, I couldn’t help noticing some key emotions reappearing throughout the report. The emotion “trust’’ is mentioned 21 times; respect is mentioned 12 times; and, while feeling appreciated is mentioned just once, recognition (which for us is closely related to the feeling of appreciation) is mentioned 10 times. We will look into those key for employee engagement emotions in the next paragraphs.

How to create a feeling of trust in employees?

In his HBR article “The Neuroscience of Trust,” professor Paul J. Zak, recommends recognising excellence. I’d say that recognising people in front of their peers is also a form of social proof that encourages others to follow the example set by others and provides guidelines on what is culturally accepted and promoted in the workplace.

Then, it’s important that teams are assigned challenging but achievable tasks. Challenging, so they feel stimulated and energised but also achievable, so they don’t give up before they’ve even begun. Managers should check in the progress and adjust goals that are out of reach. 

Giving people space for discretion and greater control of how they work is also a mutual trust-building factor. For example, when we did an employee engagement Emotional Signature study with a US insurer an attribute we tested was “I feel I can be my true self at work.” Employees rated it the lowest in terms of importance of all 40 aspects we tested, and yet it was one of the biggest drivers of employee engagement and ambassadorship (i.e. employee commitment, belief in the vision and purpose of the organization, and likelihood to promote it to others). For employee ambassadorship, it is also vital that the senior management often communicate the company’s vision and strategic objectives.

Finally, it’s noteworthy to say that you can be intentional about building relationships at the workplace. As The Conference Board study and numerous other studies have shown, the personal relationship with one’s manager is key to employee engagement. Those are also the people who can most easily and most often provide recognition for employees’ work. 

Paul J. Zak cites a Google study which found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work, while another study of software engineers in Silicon Valley found that those who connected with others and helped them with their projects not only earned the respect and trust of their peers but were also more productive themselves. So managers can make it a habit to spend time walking around the organization and meeting with their subordinates and peers, organising social events that foster the creation of personal relationships (remember one of Gallup’s key 12 questions was “I have a best friend at work”), and so on.

Asking for help may also help in this regard. This way, a manager can show appreciation for one’s skills and strengths. 

How to create a feeling of respect in employees?

Respect from the group shapes social engagement, self-esteem, and health. People in managerial and high-status roles tend to feel respected on a more regular basis and thus may underestimate it as an issue that needs deliberate attention in the workplace. What we do and how we feel at work are central to how we perceive ourselves, so the lack of respect could be very detrimental. This is especially true for the younger workforce who develop themselves as people and professionals in their workplace environment. 

Diversity and inclusion are critical trends for organisations now, and not allowing discrimination is a great place to start forging a culture of respect in the workplace. Among the things that create the feeling of respect are showing empathy, compassion, sharing one’s own feelings to enable the building of connections, using words of understanding to show you see other people’s perspective, fostering a culture of collaboration and cooperation, but above all, words of encouragement and appreciation. 

Respecting employees’ time during work and off-work hours can also go a long way, particularly at times when many people work from home. The case of a woman who quit her job after being called into the office for a six-minute meeting was widely reported. So scheduling unnecessary meetings is one of those things that show a lack of respect, and that’s something that many people and organisations are guilty of.

How to make employees feel appreciated?

As The Conference Board’s review of research on employee engagement showed, a personal relationship with one’s manager is often a key driver. Adam Grant and Francesca Gino have found that a manager’s expression of gratitude increases productivity. Among the many experiments, they did on the link between gratitude and prosocial behaviour was a study with fundraisers at a public US university.

Students were split into two groups: gratitude and nongratitude conditions. Both groups received feedback about their effectiveness. The only difference was that after the first week of efforts to raise money, the gratitude condition group received a visit from the director of annual giving to express gratitude and appreciation of their contribution toward the university. In the week following the gratitude visit, the group that received the visit increased the number of calls they made by 51%. This was done purely to help the university, as fundraisers received a fixed salary and were not rewarded for effort. The researchers’ conclusion was that “gratitude expressions increase prosocial behavior by enabling individuals to feel socially valued.” 

Many managers are, however, struggling to make employees feel that their efforts and skills are noticed and appreciated. Researchers from the Babson College of Business argue in their HBR article “The Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated” this is due to the illusion of transparency, that is, people’s tendency to overestimate how visible their emotions are to others. Talking to employees and managers, they found that there is a gap between how much managers appreciate employees and how much employees feel appreciated. They attribute that gap partly to managers incorrectly assuming that employees knew how they felt about them and partly due to having trouble expressing appreciation.

Emotions often work on an unconscious level, so don’t be surprised that it is the little things that create the feeling of appreciation. Things like dropping by to say “Hello” and “How are you,” providing some coaching, and telling people they can come in late the day after working long hours or after a transatlantic flight (as has often been the case with me) can do wonders for team managers.

Emotions like trust, respect, and appreciation have been proven to be key to driving employee engagement and productivity and they should feature and be measured in employee engagement programmes. Organisations, however, could also opt-in for targeting the same emotions with employees as they do for customers. This way, employees can see what it means to evoke and feel these emotions. It would also be cynical for the organisation to be asking employees to make customers feel certain emotions but doing the opposite for them.

When we were recently presenting what the global team of a pharmaceutical company had selected as their Customer Experience Statement to their board members, the head of HR immediately spotted that they can use the same emotions in their employee experience. We were glad this didn’t have to come out of our mouths. Another former client of ours, in her new company, introduced five emotions that they would target in both their customer and employee experiences. They even created a logo for the e5, as they call them.

This article is based on content first published in “The Big Miss: How Organizations Overlook the Value of Emotions” (Business Expert Press, 2022) by Zhecho Dobrev.


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