• Ian Sandbrook

Why Emotion Matters

I’m feeling a little uncomfortable. A little vulnerable you might say.

I’m going to write something here that I haven’t shared before, but I now feel equipped to articulate and put myself out there.

Basically, I want to share a part of my experience of being involved in a high-performance sports team environment to demonstrate what I’m learning about the importance of emotional culture within organisations and teams. This is all part of my training to become a 'Pro Elephant Rider' (a trained facilitator specialising in the sports industry) for the wonderful 'Emotional Culture Deck' developed by Jeremy Dean at riders&elephants.

This is a personal experience that I can now reflect on some 15 years later with the advantage of hindsight, greater knowledge and a far more mature outlook.

I played cricket to a decent level – NZ u19, NZ Academy, and I played some first-class and List A matches for Central Districts in the early 2000s when I was just 19. It was an exciting time and you might say I had the potential of a professional cricket career ahead of me. However, after making my breakthrough in that 2002/3 season, I was struggling mentally and emotionally. Cricket is a terrible sport in that situation. It’s unforgiving, there are long periods of introspection, and you can sometimes feel things are out of your control.

I reflect now, and I’ve never told anyone this before, but it was significantly impacting my motivation and performance.

I felt a weight of expectation to just get on with it. There was never the opportunity to delve deep enough to really understand what I was going through or at least provide me with the safe means to open up about it.

All the indicators were there that I was struggling – I suffered injuries, I would clam up before matches, I was doing the bare minimum at training, and I was even getting to the stage where I was hoping for rain so I didn’t have to play.

While this is a complex issue, I believe the emotional culture that existed within the squad exacerbated my feelings of anxiety and apprehension (important to note that this was unintended). It led to me opting out of that environment when it could have been managed and I could still have contributed successfully.

To describe the emotional culture at the time, I would say it was very cliquey and judgemental. I was a young player that didn’t have a natural fit within the group. There were a number of guys that had all come through the system together that were 6/7/8 years older than me and were good mates that did things their way. In some ways it was a great strength of the team, however, it also made me feel alienated. I didn’t feel like I belonged, and I was also fighting for a place with one of the dominant people in the group. I felt constantly judged. These are hardly ideal emotional states conducive to performing at your best in any workplace or team environment.

It’s important to note, that this isn’t a slight on the guys involved. In fact, I count many of them as mates and get on with them well. It wasn’t a culture that was deliberately managed in this way and it didn’t manifest in any glaring, outward expression of not wanting me, but the important thing is it was how I felt regardless. It was real to me and it made me go into my shell. I should have spoken out, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t feel comfortable emotionally within the environment.

Therefore, my point is that even in those performance environments where you are in each other’s pockets every day, it’s amazing how little you really know about each other – our fears, reservations, motivations, feelings; all which impact significantly on performance. We simply never had those conversations.

Perhaps, all it would have taken was an opportunity to have the discussion about how I really felt and then who knows, maybe one other person might have spoken up as well and expressed similar feelings. If that had happened, I can imagine how my whole mindset would’ve changed. I also wonder how much more effective we might have been as a group with that openness.

I truly believe that if we had scratched beneath the surface and created real human connection, belonging and understanding it would have forged a stronger bond and safety to express yourself that could only have benefitted individuals, and the team.

This experience demonstrates to me now the importance of emotional culture within teams and organisations. It’s not about being ‘nice’ and ‘friends’ with everyone all the time. It’s about having real conversations that allow empathy and understanding to take place of both the ‘desired’ and the ‘undesired’ feelings, and then finding ways forward as a group to manage those feelings and allow everyone to meaningfully contribute.

As I hope my personal story relates, for leaders within the workplace or in a high-performance sports team environment, there’s some key learnings that are becoming apparent to me through this process:

Emotional culture exists in your organisation or team whether you like it or not

Basically, we can’t help being humans. We will experience emotions and create norms and behaviours regardless of whether you think it’s all mumbo-jumbo or deliberately manage it or not.

What the research is showing is that by allowing emotions into the fold, but also understanding and consciously shaping them, leaders can better motivate their people.

Most organisations or teams pay little or no attention to how their people are, or should be, feeling

That is the reality. Feelings have been seen as something ‘soft’ that can’t be easily measured and controlled, so its significance has been downplayed or ignored. It has sat in the ‘too hard’ basket despite deep down knowing its importance. Don’t you find it interesting how often you talk to people about why they left a job or why their team wasn’t successful, and they often talk about the ‘negative’ feelings that were engendered?

As Barsade & O’Neill say, “what we have struggled to realise is how central emotions are to building the right culture for your organisation or team.”

The difference between ‘cognitive’ and ‘emotional’ culture

I’ve learned quickly to broaden my definition of culture. When we think of culture most of us think of ‘cognitive’ culture, I know I did. This is defined by Barsade & O’Neill in their paper, Manage Your Emotional Culture, as the shared ‘intellectual’ values, norms, assumptions that serve as a guide for the group. It sets the tone for how people should think and behave e.g. innovative, competitive, team-oriented etc. This is a very important aspect of culture but is only part of the story.

The emotional culture is the shared ‘affective’ values, norms, assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express, and which ones they are better off suppressing.

The key distinction they say, is ‘thinking’ vs ‘feeling’, and it’s unfortunate that our most natural and strongest urges i.e. our emotions, are very rarely managed as deliberately as the cognitive culture, or often not managed at all. And by ignoring them, the ‘elephant’ of our emotions easily overpowers the ‘rider’ of our thinking/cognitive culture, rendering it largely ineffective. It can just become a bunch of buzzwords with no meaning or relevance to people.

What the growing body of research is starting to uncover is that those organisations and teams that deliberately manage their emotional culture are achieving the best results across many metrics, including; staff/player satisfaction, retention, commitment and performance.


I wanted to finish with this one because it’s kind of where I started. This is the first thing I’m going to consciously try to improve to become a better leader. While there has been so much I’ve learnt in this area recently, more than I can do justice to in a short blog, this one sticks out to me because I believe it’s the starting point for emotional culture.

I think we find vulnerability hard, particularly outside of our personal relationships. It’s not something we are naturally inclined to do. However, displaying vulnerability creates connection with people. It opens the doors for bonds to form, understanding and empathy to take place, and conversations to evolve that can lead to better things.

Being vulnerable is weirdly liberating. It is infectious - it’s called emotional contagion. And if you start being vulnerable and discuss the fundamental feelings you want to experience within your workplace or team, then you open the door for others to do so. And I believe that any environment that fosters a sense of sharing, empathy and understanding, can only led to a more committed, fulfilled and productive group of people.

Do you want to learn more about The Emotional Culture Deck? There are a few ways you can you learn more about the deck:


Download a free Lo-fi PDF version of the deck at the website, click here

Download the #emotionalcultureworkshop for free here (yes for free but I can also facilitate this workshop for you and your teams if you wanted some help).

Depending on where you live, you can attend an Emotional Culture Masterclass (like I did), click here for more info

If you still have questions, feel free to contact me!

#theemotionalculturedeck #proelephantrider #designedbyridersandelephants

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