When we think of company culture, we are usually thinking of cognitive culture – the shared intellectual values and norms that guide how a team thinks and acts.

Most leaders know the importance of being mindful of their company’s culture, yet most fail to recognize the important distinction between cognitive and emotional culture. The consequence is a lack of understanding of how employees feel or should feel and the influence these feelings have on the organization as a whole. In other words, not enough leaders understand their emotional culture.

This article aims to give leaders more clarity and direction in creating an emotional culture that leads to better engagement and performance.

Cognitive vs. Emotional Culture

A key difference between cognitive and emotional culture is how they are conveyed. Cognitive culture is typically verbal and can be conveyed through things like office vernacular, slogans, posters, and digital communication. Meanwhile, emotional culture tends to be conveyed through nonverbal behaviors like facial expressions, body language, and tone. While nonverbal communication can be trickier to pin down and decode, it greatly influences how people feel. And when leaders are mindful of their role in creating an emotional culture, they can better understand their employees’ needs.

Leaders Need to Prioritize Creating an Emotional Culture

Cognitive culture sets expectations for how employees think and act at work — for example, how innovative, collaborative, or customer-focused they are or should be. But too little emphasis on cultivating an emotional culture can have consequences, such as low employee satisfaction, burnout, hindered collaboration, and absenteeism.

Think about it. If we have negative emotions associated with our work, we are less motivated. We may even have a harder time collaborating and forming positive relationships with our teammates. Meanwhile, if we feel happy and safe at work, we are primed to do better work and work well alongside our colleagues.

Before creating an emotional culture, leaders need to understand: if you think you don’t currently have an emotional culture, you are mistaken. As mentioned in this article in Harvard Business Review, “Every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression.” But regardless of its current state, it’s not too late to get a grip on a new emotional culture that engages employees and drives success.

Examples of Positive Emotional Cultures

Culture of joy

When employees get joy from their work, it shows – and it makes customers and other stakeholders feel joy too. An emotional culture of joy might look like incorporating fun into everyday tasks or out-of-office events, such as celebrating work and life wins and giving out fun, personal awards for each member of the team. When balanced with productivity, a culture of joy can increase job satisfaction, encourage creativity, and improve company image.

Culture of companionate love

Love? In the workplace? Why not? Harvard Business Review defines companionate love as “the degree of affection, caring, and compassion that employees feel and express toward one another.” Research has found a positive correlation between companionate love and business performance – and this phenomenon remains consistent across industries. To foster a culture of companionate love, cultivate teams who are empathetic, compassionate, and open to forming genuine connections with team members. This could also look like personal check-ins, bonding exercises, and team member shoutouts.

Fear-based Emotional Culture: What to Watch Out For

From my experience studying and speaking about fear-based thinking, I believe unhealthy emotional cultures usually stem from fear-based thinking without awareness. Earlier, we talked about suppression. Well, why else would employees feel the need to suppress their emotions other than the fear of being invalidated, punished, or ostracized?

Fear-based thinking is instinctual – humans have always needed fear for survival – but having fear-based thoughts isn’t the issue. Whether you are a boss or an employee, fear-based thoughts are inevitable; it’s how we handle them that makes all the difference.

Ever heard of emotional contagion? Leaders, when you let your fear-based thoughts leak into your actions, your team will start to catch the fear bug.

You may have an emotional culture of fear if employees have little to contribute when asked open-ended questions — for example, at the end of a meeting when you ask if anyone has any questions. Of course, you might just be really good at explaining things and instilling confidence in your team. But your employees may also be afraid to admit they don’t understand something.

When leaders acknowledge and validate emotions, they can turn fear into trust and teamwork, making everyone feel more supported and engaged. Let’s talk more about how to foster an emotional culture that works best for your team.

Fostering an Emotional Culture

  • Gauge and leverage existing emotions. One way to gauge existing emotions is to pay closer attention to employees’ body language, tone, and reactions. However, to balance out personal bias and other limitations to observation, consider more standardized methods like anonymous feedback surveys.
  • Model desired emotions. Leading by example is always a good idea for leaders. Practice emotional intelligence by reflecting on and managing your emotions and how they manifest around your team. If you want to foster an emotional culture of joy, for example, make an effort to celebrate your team’s success, including your own.
  • Apply changes across all levels. If you are an executive-level leader, it’s not enough to model desired emotions; you need to ensure middle managers are on the same page. Create space for in-depth conversations about creating an emotional culture across all levels – highlighting how emotional culture will be implemented and measured.
  • Link emotions to operations. Make your emotional culture explicit by weaving it into your company’s written values and core principles. Also consider implementing team rituals that reflect your organization’s emotional culture – like Funny Video Fridays or Wellness Wednesdays. And don’t forget to request (and follow up on) feedback.


Remember: Every team has an emotional culture, whether or not it’s intentional. When we are mindful of our team’s emotional culture, we get to influence it in a way that motivates people to do their best work.

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