How Emotional Generosity Can Transform Your Culture

Suzan Bond
Sep 4, 2020 · 6 min read

Company culture is dynamic. Your culture is a living, breathing entity than changes based who you hire, who you promote, the policies you set and the behaviors allowed to flourish. In negative cultures, gossip is rampant, people are hyper-competitive, and the team is emotionally disconnected. People fear being called out publicly, making them shrink, shying away from hard challenges. This stifles the growth of the team and the company. Toxic habits tear your culture down. When allowed to flourish, this negative behavior takes over, psychological safety erodes, people flee the team.

When it comes to creating a positive culture, emotional generosity is a hidden multiplier often overlooked. Emotional generosity is an antidote to that negative behavior. High levels of this kind of generosity can be a bolster against company culture turning toxic. It can transform a good culture into an exceptional one, propelling the company rapidly towards its goals. Emotionally generous cultures have a spirit of collaboration rather than competition, the team feels safe to try innovative approaches and have productive communication patterns.

Characteristics of Emotionally Generous People

They seek to understand, then to be understood

They prioritize questions over statements. When faced with a conflict they’re more likely to ask questions to ensure they understand before sharing their opinion. They delay making assumptions or judgements until they have more information. The emotionally generous balance listening and talking, allowing them to understand other’s opinions and gain a more holistic view of a situation. They focus on relationships over being right. Their desire to understand others makes them more empathetic and compassionate.

Value kindness

Sometimes being nice means we don’t have hard conversations. The emotionally generous know that honesty is critical to build relationships and help the team come to the right conclusions. Kindness means telling the truth in service of someone else, even if it hurts. They’re honest without being cruel. They don’t publicly shame or blame others when they make mistakes. Their compassion means others feel safe around them, honest conversations come more easily as they let down their guard. Rather than being jealous, they celebrate other’s success, bringing energy to the team.

Manage their emotions

Emotional generosity requires emotional regulation. They know how to monitor and adjust their own internal state in service of themselves and the relationship. We all have bad days. It’s natural to experience frustration or irritation when things aren’t going well. The emotionally generous can experience negative emotions and have bad days too, it’s how they handle them. They know how to manage their emotions rather than projecting them on to others, allowing conflict to resolve more easier. They don’t let personal feelings distract from the larger goal. Most have worked on themselves through introspection, mindfulness practices, coaching and even therapy.

They’re balanced

While generous emotionally, they’re not doormats. Sustainable emotional generosity requires strong boundaries. These folks know who they are, what they believe in and have good boundaries. Rather than always giving, they know how to balance their needs with those of others. Instead of allowing their ego or insecurity to take over, they ask for help when needed. They’re more likely to have solid self care practices and less likely to take negative feelings out on others. The emotionally generous take breaks, including vacations to help them reset, and are less likely to become workaholics. They bring a sense of calm and are great examples for the rest of the team.

Why Emotional Generosity Matters

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A great strategy can’t get off the ground without a solid culture behind it. Strategy and culture work hand in hand. Culture can enable or get in the way of strategy — it can be the rocket fuel or the vat of molasses holding the company back. We often think of leaders being in charge of culture but a company is made up of individuals. Everyone plays a part in creating it — both positive and negative emotions are contagious. While constant negativity can pull a culture down, emotional generosity can lift it. Here’s how emotional generosity can turn your culture into rocket fuel for the company.

Increases psychological safety

Toxic cultures make us feel unsafe. These environments have widespread gossip, entrenched conflict, where fear pervades and people are afraid to speak up. These conditions are terrible for well-being, collaboration and productivity, they’re also bad for business. Teams with psychological safety are more proactive in problem solving, have increased performance and organizational learning. Group dynamics are a powerful driver of psychological safety, the emotionally generous are strong contributors. Knowing they won’t be publicly shamed for mistakes, the team is more likely to develop creative solutions. They hold vulnerability, tenderly like cupping a baby bird in their hands, making the workplace more humane, safe and a place where people want to stay.

Conflict resolves more easily

The emotionally generous navigate conflict without getting stuck. They’re willing to concede on less important issues, while holding firm on the most important. The emotionally generous work to resolve conflict rather than ingrain it further — even when they didn’t start it.When offering critical feedback, they focus on the idea or behavior without personalizing it. This approach helps others to shift behavior without feeling criticized, allowing all to focus on the problem rather than interpersonal conflict. It’s not that there’s never conflict, sometimes a good debate is just what’s needed. In emotionally generous teams, the conflict is constructive and less likely to devolve into entrenched opinions. These key folks set the tone for interactions — helping the team move through conflict faster, and get back to work.

More effective collaboration

Being able to regulate one’s emotions positively impacts team performance. Research has found that teams where people manage their emotions perform better than those who don’t. It’s not that they talk about their feelings, it’s that they can put them aside for the greater good to accomplish a task. When others give them feedback, they reflect on their actions and make changes. This allows them to see mistakes and correct them. Apologies are genuine. Their openness makes others more likely to speak up. Their generous behavior in conversation opens space for other points of view. This helps people feel heard and for creative solutions to arise. The emotionally generous act as connective tissue in the company making collaboration more pleasurable. Everyone wants to work with co-workers who make them feel seen, heard and safe. They stave off high levels of attrition and create a more harmonious work environment for all.

3 Ways to Create an Emotionally Generous Culture

Stop tolerating toxic behavior — Relationship researcher John Gottman found that for stability, couples need a 5:1 ratio — five positive interactions for every negative one. This holds true for teams. When the ratio of toxic habits dips below that threshold, the team suffers. Toxic behavior must be managed swiftly. Look out for negative behavior like insisting on always being right, a consistent need for control or steamrolling over others. These are indicators that a corrosive element has entered the team, put resolving this at the top of the priority list. Sometimes toxic behavior can be transformed but when it can’t, the person must leave. Never let negative habits linger, no matter how harmless or how valuable someone seems to the company.

Level up the capacity of the entire team — Be careful not to lean on the emotionally generous too much. Putting them on every challenging project or pairing them with those with bad behavior might solve short term problems but is shortsighted. Like anyone, they’re susceptible to burnout particularly when dealing with emotionally taxing situations every day. Emotional generosity is a skill that can be developed. Yes, the most toxic and unwilling to change might be too far gone but there’s many others who can level up becoming a positive force for the team. Work to build the capacity of others on the team rather than always assigning the emotionally generous person the toughest team dynamic challenges. An emotionally generous team creates a culture that boosts the strategy in powerful ways.

Don’t forget about those in charge — Not all of the emotionally generous will have formal leadership roles though anyone who mentors, manages or leads others must have some ability to manage their emotions, able to share conversation flow and resolve conflict. Don’t forget senior individual contributors, they have huge influence — make sure they support the kind of culture you want to create. When hiring or promoting into leadership, emotional generosity is key. A brilliant leader create the best technical solution but ground the team into the ground by being emotionally stingy (micromanaging, lack of praise, not regulating their emotions). Offer extra coaching and support for anyone who needs to level up their skill in this area. Don’t rely solely on the team to create a safe environment, an emotionally generous culture can only be created when supported and led by leaders across the organization.

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Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. www.suzanbond.com Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

Suzan Bond

Written by

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. www.suzanbond.com Twitter: @suzanbond

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +785K followers.

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