Regardless of what work you are doing, emotions always play a part in your actions. Discussion in the field of working life studies has recently paid increasing attention to how the emotional atmosphere of work communities is formed and how it can be affected.

Previously, people often thought that work is just a question of performance. A person comes to work, performs the assigned tasks and then closes the door when leaving at the end of the day or shift. Today, the relationship between an individual and their work is understood in a more comprehensive way. The emotional atmosphere of workplaces is also seen to have an effect on both wellbeing at work and the results of an organisation.

Researchers examining questions related to working life are increasingly interested in the significance of emotions, and funding can also be found for researching them. Päivi Hökkä, senior researcher in education, and her research team have reached the final stage of the Emotional Agency in Organisational Change (TUNTO) project, which is supported by the Finnish Work Environment Fund. The project was implemented in cooperation with Emergy Oy. The company was responsible for the emotional interventions carried out during the project.

Commitment from the management is important

The study was implemented at two medium-sized companies. One of them is operating in the health care sector in the Capital Region, while the other one is a technology company based in Tampere. Both companies were undergoing large-scale organisational changes, for which support was sought in emotional intervention.

Päivi Hökkä has led the TUNTO project to the final stage.

Hökkä was positively surprised by the commitment with which both employees and managers participated in the study. “Commitment from the management is very important for the success of this kind of intervention study”, she says.

The objective of the project was to enhance the participants’ emotional skills and to develop the emotional atmosphere of the workplace. A total of six workshops included in the intervention took place at both organisations over a period of six months. The study, carried out by the Department of Education of the University of Jyväskylä, examined emotional agency and how it can be supported in people’s work. The researchers observed the workshops and collected the experiences of the staff and supervisors through questionnaires and interviews.

Critical thoughts brought to bear on the change

“We definitely didn’t have the goal of spreading mere superficial cheerfulness or a feeling of ‘oh, we have so much fun’. An organisation must have room for all emotions, including the difficult ones that are often feared”, Hökkä says.

During the project, the researchers defined the concept of “emotional agency” and developed an indicator for studying it. They were also interested in whether emotional agency can be supported through intervention. The results showed that emotional agency consists of one’s own emotional skills and the way emotions are affected at work. Intervention could be used to support and enhance the emotional agency of personnel, and the change was also shown to be permanent.

New emotional tools were learned and adopted in the workshops, such as “100% presence”, “self-disclosure” and “deep thanks”. The tools created new terms and practices supporting the handling of emotions in the everyday work at the workplace. The researchers observed that regardless of the industry the organisation operated in, the results of emotional intervention were similar.

The results were visible in challenging situations involving interaction, such as discussions concerning the handling of mistakes that had occurred in the course of work.  “One’s own emotions and those of others were identified and taken into account, and they could be discussed together in a constructive way. This way, for instance, an experience of shame did not form an obstacle to solving the situation”, Hökkä says. Emotions became permitted, and people learned to identify them. Emotions were noticed, and people understood that they can be seen as a part of everyday work.

Participation was worthwhile

Another company participating in the study is Tampereen Tilapalvelut Oy. Its managing director, Petri Mölsä, is very satisfied with the change brought about by the project. Based on his experiences, he encourages others to boldly take part in similar projects if they get the opportunity.

“With my background in engineering, I have learned that the world works based on rational arguments and factual matters. However, experience has shown that emotions have a huge impact on the performance of an organisation”, he says.

In the early stage of the study, the personnel had a lot of prejudices, and even fears. The whole study was seen as time-consuming extra effort. Once the idea was communicated that the emotional workshops will help employees get better along with each other, people joined the process and got excited about it. Discussions are now more open, customers can be taken into consideration better and personnel satisfaction is improving.

“The world is changing rapidly, and this fact is common to all organisations. Usually, people first react to change emotionally and think about how it will affect them. Through coaching, they learn to recognise why each person reacts to matters in a certain way. This, in turn, helps understand the environment and advance matters faster”, Mölsä says.

In addition to improving the emotional atmosphere of the work community, emotional agency also helped with situations involving customers. The results can be generalised to apply to organisations of many different types. Hökkä sees a significant area of application for the results in adult education and organisational research.

People participating in the Emotional Agency in Organisational Change (TUNTO) project:

Päivi Hökkä, Senior Researcher, leader of the project

Heini Ikävalko, Doctor of Science (Tech.)

Susanna Paloniemi, Doctor of Education

Katja Vähäsantanen, Doctor of Education, docent

Aku Nordling, Master of Education

The final report summarising the implementation and main results of the project will be published in the autumn of 2020.

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