The Emotional Revolution in the Workplace

How Emotional Intelligence Can Save Democracy & How the Ombuds Can Influence This

It is indeed an honour to address a group who, in my view, are in a unique position to protect and even grow democracy around the world by being the catalyst in protecting and shifting institutional cultures.

The premise I make is - diverse, inclusive, fair and safe cultures are by definition democratic; and if all of our institutions were more diverse, inclusive, fair and safe, we would have a more civil and democratic society.

Abraham Lincoln warned – “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing will fail, without it, nothing can succeed.”

What has become all too apparent is that institutional leaders are not listening to or hearing the sentiments of people they are responsible for.

Most institutions have become too reliant on polls and engagement surveys to gauge sentiment. These polls and surveys may help to keep score, but they are often too superficial to unearth long-standing cultural issues that give rise to discontent, unnecessary stress and organizational risk.

Polls and engagement surveys don’t delve into why people feel the way they do. The why is critical. Let me tell you why - my first job at Loblaws, Canada’s largest retailer, was in labor relations. We introduced a German-themed delicatessen as a store within a store. As part of the theme, employees were required to wear German costumes. A store manager sought sanction to fire a female employee, named Tillie, because she refused to wear the dirndl. As it turned out the store was close to our headquarters, and I was often served by Tillie, who always exemplified what we wanted from our people. I immediately went to the store and asked to meet with her. “Tillie” I asked “Why don’t you want to wear the dirndl? She responded by rolling up her sleeve to expose a number tattooed on her arm, identifying herself as a concentration camp survivor.

How often do we hear from managers and human resource people - “oh, he or she is a disgruntled or unreasonable employee”? Well my experience with Tillie, whenever I hear this assessment I ask, “Why are they disgruntled or unreasonable?”

When companies who have invested heavily in attracting and retaining people - like Google - experience employee rebellion, it is clear that traditional techniques are failing us. With Google, they clearly did not hear or understand employee sentiment; and it is pretty obvious that they did not have the benefit of having a safe channel for employees to express their discontent.

In your role as Ombuds, you hear directly how people feel; you also hear the Tillie’s why.

This goes beyond identifying and reporting trends; hearing the why’s gives you information to relay to leadership the cultural gaps and unnecessary stress factors that cause the discontent.

By doing this, you can help make the institutions become more democratic. Also, I will make the assertion that if the institutions who were exposed in the media for wrongdoings had a credible ombuds program, the internal whistleblowers would have gone to them in the first instance, and not put into jeopardy the institution’s reputation; and the resulting fallout could have been avoided.

Let’s look at the state of democracy today.

Most of our institutions are broken. There is a great divide in every aspect of our lives - where we live, where we learn, where we work, where we worship, where we associate, and where we play - in all sectors, and across all geography.

This is largely due to a society where our institutions continue to be ‘old boys’ clubs; where the wealthy elites wield a disproportionate amount of power and control; where relationships and interdependencies are not fostered; where corruption, greed, harassment, abuse and coverups have become the norm; where “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts” prevail; and where extreme partisanship is becoming more entrenched.

A recent study called ‘LETHAL MASS PARTISANSHIP’ is a sobering report on how entrenched and dangerous this has become.

Their survey asked Republican and Democratic voters whether they agreed with a statement that members of the opposition party - “are just not worse for politics, they are downright evil.”

Here is what they found:

 Just over 42 percent view the opposition as “downright evil”.

 One out of five agrees with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered human.”

 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans think that on occasion “the country would be better off if a large number of the opposition died”.

While these horrible findings speak to partisan politics in the U.S., it is safe to say that the negative emotions of fear, anger and hate have created similar entrenched sentiments and dangers in other countries and sectors of society.

The reason for this is we don’t talk to each other anymore, and if we talk, we talk at each other. We have lost the art of civil discourse.

Civil discourse is at the core of democracy.

The lack of civil discourse is also at the core of our broken institutions. So, this then becomes our challenge - how can we foster relationships where differing beliefs, views and perspectives can be heard and respected.

To foster relationships there must be engagement.

People, regardless of their status in an institution, must become comfortable in ‘The Six D’s of Engagement –

 DISSENT, and yes even DEFY

I understand that dissent and defy may fly in the face of your role as an ombuds; if we want people to be truly engaged, we should expect them to take stands, particularly when they are asked to do something that is illegal or unethical.

Lack of engagement is an ongoing issue in our institutions. For a couple of decades of polling by Gallop, engagement levels have not exceeded 34 percent. This means two-thirds of North American workers are not engaged.

There is no question that employers have invested heavily in this. Employment training has become a multi-billion-dollar industry; yet has yielded scant returns. The Faas Foundation set out to understand why the traditional techniques and further investments were failing us. Working with the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence and Mental Health America, we have identified seven conditions necessary for active and positive engagement.

They are:

FIRST - A level of TRUST throughout the institution. The #MeToo movement, and the exposures of corruption and wrongdoings in every segment of our society, has highlighted the need for leaders to evaluate their at-risk positions.

In most of the situations that have been exposed, the situation is secondary to the real issue, which is that they were open secrets for years, and in some cases decades; and leadership was either complicit or negligent.

Bystanders and targets of abuse were afraid to expose injustices or irregularities for fear of retaliation.

Given the number of cultural time bombs that have exploded, leadership is starting to panic and desperately looking for a magic bullet on how to protect their organizations from the huge negative consequences. Most are doubling down on what has not worked in the past - more training and revising their policies.

Unless there is trust, any resources applied will be urinated away. Trust is the prerequisite to everything else.

Trust is that magic bullet.

SECOND – The SECURITY people in the organization experience. For most, there is no sense of security, primarily because of the poor relationships they have with their supervisor. It is not so much that people expect a guarantee of employment; what they expect is fairness in how they are assessed; and if there is a downsizing, that they will be treated fairly. Also, they expect that the employer will minimize the negative impacts changes will have on employees; and will use downsizing as a last vs a first resort.

THIRD - A degree of DIVERSITY and INCLUSION - If institutions do not reflect the communities in which they operate and the customers they serve, they are not getting essential perspectives on what they need to know. We are in an era where the lack of talent is the biggest challenge employers face. Becoming more diverse opens up a huge pool of untapped talent, which is largely unrepresented.

Without inclusion however, diversity will fail. Being inclusive will force the institution to address the equity, biases, favoritism and the old boys’ mentality and influence.

Chevron, an organization that has participated in our ‘Emotion Revolution in the Workplace’ initiative at Yale, is an example of an organization that has made diversity and inclusion a foundational pillar of their culture, which is supported by values and codes of behaviour that are inviolate, not words on a wall or on a website.

‘The Chevron Way’ have been conditions of employment for three decades. Leadership there attributes these conditions for their success in consistently outperforming others in their sector and having only a three percent turnover of staff.

FOURTH - A sense of PURPOSE across the workforce. David Graeber’s book, ‘Bullshit Jobs - A Theory’, cites a UK study that shows 37 percent of people don’t believe their job makes a meaningful difference. Folklore has it that when President Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral in 1962, he did a walk around and asked people what they did. Most being rocket scientists, he got mostly technical answers. A janitor he encountered responded with, “well Mr. President, I am helping to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely.”

Just imagine if everyone you manage or lead would give this type of response.

FIFTH - A sense of EFFICACY associated with the workforce. A sense of purpose provides people with the why of what they do, a sense of efficacy encourages people to constantly ask - why are we doing it this way? Seventy-four percent of North American workers feel their work environment is overly focused on trivial activities and have overly bureaucratic company policies. This suggests that any sense of efficacy is pretty much nonexistence.

SIXTH - The confidence of every colleague to SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER. If people are too afraid to tell leadership what they need to hear, it is unlikely they will provide input on how to protect and grow the enterprise. and

SEVENTH - The EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE as a core competency. Emotions matter - and matter a great deal at work. They guide complex decision making, help people build and maintain positive relationships, and influence psychological well-being.

So, where are our institutions on meeting these conditions?

From our Mental Health America study ‘Mind the Workplace’ of over 20 thousand respondents we found:

  •  Only 17 percent feel that their co-workers are appropriately dealt with when they are not doing their job.

  •  Only 28 percent feel that all employees are held accountable for their work, regardless of their position within the organization.

  •  Only 36 percent feel that their supervisor would support them when things get hard.

  •  Only 34 percent feel that their co-workers would support them when things get hard.

  •  77 percent feel that people are being unfairly recognized, while others with better experience or skills don’t get recognized at all.

  •  74 percent feel their work environment is overly focused on trivial activities and has overly bureaucratic company policies. And

  •  71 percent speak poorly about their organizations to family and friends.

From our Yale study ‘Emotion Revolution in the Workplace’ of over 14 thousand respondents, we found:

  •  55 percent are stressed most of the time.

  •  47 percent are overwhelmed most of the time.

  •  51 percent are frustrated most of the time.

  • 50percent are burned out. And

  •  25 percent are pressured to act unethically.

The American Psychological Association reported that bosses cause stress for 75 percent of employees.

Research by the University of Phoenix has proven that 75 percent of employees have been affected by workplace bullying whether as a target or witness.

Considering all of this, it is no small wonder why there is so much discontent.

So, what is the most important thing these statistics tell us? - positive boss/subordinate relationships are rare.

This data also tells us that two-thirds of North American workers are not being effectively led and managed; rather they are monitored and controlled, and communication between the manager and employee is limited to direct orders, the annual or semi-annual performance reviews, and when things go south.

Most performance management systems do not adequately address the issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, fairness, preferential treatment, cronyism, ambiguity, subjectivity, bias, harassment, abuse and relevancy of activities. These ten issues exist in most organizations.

The boss/subordinate relationship is the most important of the cultural shifts required; and the most important aspect of this is making emotional intelligence a core competency, in particular for managers.

Our Yale study provides some compelling evidence for this.

When asked to describe their experience at work, employees whose supervisors have high emotional intelligence paint a very different picture than those whose supervisors have low emotional intelligence.

We also found that those who work for an emotionally intelligent supervisor are less stressed; have less burnout; are more engaged; are more creative and innovative; and are less prone to engage in ethical breaches.

You have probably heard emotional intelligence portrayed as a set of “soft skills” or traits such as optimization, assertiveness, or just being “nice”. Though popular, the view that emotional intelligence is solely a soft skill is simply wrong.

The scientific conception of emotional intelligence was proposed by psychologists Peter Salovey (current President of Yale) and John Mayer. Their ability model of emotional intelligence defines the constructs on a set of skills - including the perception and regulation of emotions, that helps people reason with emotions to inform their decisions.

Research shows that emotional intelligence, when measured as an ability, has tangible everyday benefits - better performance, more effective decision making, more satisfying relationships, and greater well-being.

To develop the emotional intelligence skills of managers, we tie the application of these skills to a performance management model that forces regular and ongoing dialogue versus just “checking in”.

This is a value proposition which we call “The Covenant Model”. It works this way:

Managers sets out clear expectations they have of employees in terms of performance, behaviours and attitudes. Clarity not only on the what, but also on the how. A key expectation is for people to relay anything they are aware of that could put individuals and/or the institution at risk.

The employee is then given the outline of what they expect from the employer to deliver on what the employer expects from them.

Once agreement is reached, it becomes their covenant.

The key to making ‘The Covenant Model’ work is regular and ongoing dialogue, using the covenant as the framework for the discussions.

Because a significant proportion of your visitors deal with supervisors’ issues, the juxtaposition of the ombuds approach with the emotional intelligence/covenant model can build on trust in this most important relationship and create win-wins for all.

Having used this model for years, I can attest that it not only improves active engagement, performance, behaviours and attitudes; it also reduces surprises, excuses and risks; and most importantly, unnecessary stress.”

And by reducing unnecessary stress, it directly tackles the mental health crisis and loneliness epidemic that has led to premature deaths including suicides, which are at unprecedented high levels. To give you an order of magnitude, in the United States there are 120 thousand deaths annually that may be attributable to workplace stress; which makes workplace stress one of the top killers. I intentionally use this hard word because people who die because of willful unnecessary stress, and because of a toxic culture are victims of homicide.

By introducing the Covenant Model in the organizations, I was responsible for, we reduced our training investment by 75 percent and increased our manager to employee ratio’s by 40 percent.

Today, only 13 percent of public companies have a formal Ombuds program. The majority of people are being denied a credible channel to help address their discontent. Without the ability to individually address their discontent, people are starting to recognize collective action is necessary. The #MeToo movement, the worldwide walkout by Google employees and France’s Yellow Vest movement are, in my view, just the beginning of a new industrial revolution.

France’s President Macron in responding to the Yellow Vest movement is heeding Lincoln ‘s advice on sentiment, by conducting an extensive listening tour. He has been very open in indicating the need for some pretty drastic changes that will have an impact on the public; but he has also indicated his being open to figuring out how to minimize the negative impacts. Rather than fight the revolution, he is embracing it by engaging in it. This is democracy in action. While the jury is out on the success of this - my bet is France will be the better for it.

The Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence advanced a revolution in schools called ‘RULER’, which has been adopted in thousands of schools internationally.

RULER is an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that supports the entire school community in:

  •  understanding the value of emotions;

  •  building the skills of emotional intelligence; and

  •  creating and maintaining a positive school climate. Research shows:

  •  positive shifts in school climates;

  •  enhanced academic performance;

  •  better quality relationships; and

  •  less bullying and aggressive behaviour.

In the ‘Emotion Revolution in Schools’, a wonderful dynamic that has emerged is what we refer to as a spillover effect, where students in emotionally intelligent schools apply emotional intelligence skills at home, creating emotionally intelligent families.

We anticipate that by creating emotionally intelligent workplaces, they will have a spillover effect in the community.

Just imagine how having engaged emotionally intelligent families, schools, workplaces, associations and governments can change the global downward spiral we are on and create a more democratic world.

And just imagine how you and your colleagues can make this vision a reality.

The challenge however is we need to reverse the 13 percent of organizations that have an Ombuds programs to 87 percent who do.

Delivered by Accordant Advisors Co-Founder, Andrew Faas, to the 14th Annual Conference of the International Ombudsman Association on April 2, 2019.