Greg Monaco

How Emotion Can Help HR Win The Talent War

First published with Human Resource Executive Online

Thankfully, and obviously, we’re in a much better place economically now than we were in the dark days of late 2008. However, as a result, the worry and anxiety of the 2008 employee has dramatically shifted to the employer of 2016 and their HR executives. I don’t need to cite the scores of recent articles about the current talent wars. Employers are doing anything and everything they can to get a leg up, not only to fill open slots with the best candidates, but also to keep their best talent from walking out the door to greener pastures.

Those in HR and the broader C-suite are beginning to see a new weapon emerge in that battle: the use of emotion (which is clearly a loaded word). Expressing emotions, provided they’re context or setting-appropriate, are generally accepted for life’s ups-and-downs and constant curveballs. But across the board (with perhaps rare cultural or national exceptions), we’re indoctrinated the moment we enter the workplace, that there is little room for emotions. Business is a place of rational thoughts, decisions and logic, often based upon data points.

“There is no crying at the office.”

“Don’t let your emotions get the best of you.”

“Let’s all step back, take a breath and revisit the issue.”

Most likely, you’ve heard or used one or more of these phrases, in some shape or form. While all out rationality may be a useful approach to conducting business or interacting with fellow employees, HR departments are starting to allow for a broader approach and actually tap emotion as an ally in the talent wars.

In an intriguing twist on the use of big data by HR, companies such as Intel, Twitter and IBM are now using software which tracks and analyzes employee sentiment. In other words, they are tracking how employees feel about their  company, their job, and  day-to-day life at work. For decades, companies big and small have conducted lengthy, staid multiple-choice employee surveys to get a snapshot of what was working and what wasn’t. Or so they thought. They discovered an inherent flaw in those surveys: employees sometimes blindly and robotically click a, b, c, or d, to simply finish and move on.

A recent Wall Street Journal article details how more and more, companies are using employee surveys with open-ended questions and then adding software with language-processing and machine-learning algorithms, to go much deeper to decipher emotions from the responses. This use of big data is brilliant — it not only provides the leadership team with flags revealing which HR initiatives are working, but more importantly provides a lens into what may be causing ill-will and even employee churn.

Emotion is also emerging as a critical player in employee engagement. Or, put another way, as employee engagement becomes increasingly important to HR, emotion is being recognized as a key driver.

According to Boeing, employee satisfaction isn’t enough. Boeing has made a distinction between satisfied employees and engaged employees. The latter being the more desired state, quantifying a direct link to the company’s profitability. As stated on Boeing Frontiers newsletter, “Boeing’s definition of employee engagement is an individual’s personal attachment to his or her work on both an intellectual and emotional level.”

You don’t have to look very far to find a multitude of HR studies devoted to parsing the drivers of employee engagement. For example, a study from Dale Carnegie and MSW Research polled a national, representative sample of 1,500 employees to examine elements that affect employee engagement. They, of course, found many factors, and the three key drivers were not at all unexpected:

  1. Relationship with immediate supervisor
  2. Belief in senior leadership
  3. Pride in working for the company

However, peel back one layer and you’ll see that’s not all that’s going on here. Read the body of the study and you begin to see words and phrases surface such as: ‘personal relationship’ and ‘attitude.’ In addition, glance at some of the key words used above — relationship, belief and pride — which reveal the underlying common denominator of emotion.

Not a trivial point. Employees may say their primary reason for being engaged with their employer is ‘belief in senior leadership’, but what they are really saying is, they work for senior leaders who believe what they believe. That is not based on logic or data points. That is 100 percent based upon emotion.

Chick-Fil-A founder Truett Cathy knew this decades ago. His “servant leadership’ style (derived from Biblical principles) created an engaged workforce that was emotionally invested in living and acting in accordance with Christian values. Mr. Cathy successfully tapped into the more intangible aspects of working — an environment built from mission, purpose, and emotional fulfillment.

HR at companies like BASF, Northrup Grumman and GE also have increasingly turned to communicating mission, purpose and emotional fulfillment as they face competition in recruitment and retention from Google, Apple and others. GE’s “What’s the Matter with Owen” recruitment videos tell the story of the hiring of a millennial software developer named Owen whose friends are not impressed when he signs on with GE, in their view an old time manufacturing company. Undeterred, Owen explains, he’ll be writing “a new language for machines so planes, trains even hospitals can work better.” Clearly designed to tug at the emotions of pride, community and discovery, this business-to-employee campaign is signed with the tagline “Get Yourself a World-Changing Job.”

While there haven’t been as many HR studies drawing a strong line between emotion and employee engagement, there is plenty of evidence showing strong corporate benefits of engaged employees. A report from CEB entitled “Driving Performance and Retention Through Employee Engagement unearths some intriguing points about both. The study found:

  1. Employees who are most committed perform 20 percent better and are 87 percent less likely to leave the organization
  2. Engagement levels are determined more by company strategies and policies than any other characteristic
  3. An analysis of both rational and emotional forms of engagement reveals that emotional engagement is four timesmore valuable than rational engagement in driving employee effort


Another salient point, worth highlighting, is that “among the top 25 drivers of employee engagement identified by the Council, the most important driver is a connection between an employee’s job and organizational strategy.” Actually believing in a company’s strategy, purpose and aligning with those who believe what you believe is clearly an emotional, not a rational action.

Mitchell Caplan, Chief Marketing Officer, IBT Media, who has also held leadership roles at advertising agencies such as McCann and Young & Rubicam, said, “your brand is weakened unless your employee base is engaged and advocating for it. If they don’t understand or support it, you cannot expect the market to react in a different way.”

Caplan, who has deep experience with large national brands as well as large groups of employees, makes a very good point for companies and the service providers that work for them. To help brands truly strengthen and grow, service providers can’t simply help market a company’s products and services and stop there. They need to work hand-in-hand with their clients’ HR counterparts to extend a brand strategy that touches the emotions of customers, into a powerful employee engagement strategy, which touches the emotions of each and every employee.

Clearly, there is work to be done.

A Gallup poll from 2013 found that 29.6 percent of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs. A year later, the same poll found that the number had gone up but by less than two percentage points — to just 31.5 percent. On the flipside, a majority of employees, 51 percent, were still “not engaged” and 17.5 percent were “actively disengaged” in 2014. Examine the global statistics from the same study and it becomes even more abysmal.

If you’re still not convinced that this is an important trend you simply must pay attention to what brands are saying and how they’re acting. In an unscientific and anecdotal assertion, the president of Unilever Europe Jan Zijderveld, said at a recent IGD Big Debate conference in London that “brands with ‘purpose’ at the heart of their message were growing at twice the rate of other brands across Unilever’s portfolio.”

We’ve all known for quite some time the veracity of Zijderveld’s notion that “brands that stand for something can inject value into a business.” But what’s quickly coming into the spotlight for companies large and small is how those emotional connections impact their most valuable company asset — their employees.

One company that has embraced that idea is Airbnb. Their tremendous growth hasn’t been limited to market valuation and number of cities served. In a mere eight-month period, from June 2014 to February 2015, they tripled their employee base from 550 to more than 1,600. In what I would consider a pioneering move they recently gave their CHRO the new title of global head of employee experience. Why? Clearly, they’re smart enough to realize that they won’t always be one of the most desirable places to work and focusing their efforts on making significant connections with employees, emotional and otherwise, will yield future success.

Mark Levy, global head of employee experience at Airbnb, said, “We are focused on bringing to life our mission of creating a world where you can #belonganywhere, by creating memorable workplace experiences which span all aspects of how we relate to employees, including how we recruit them, develop them, the work environment we create with them, the type of volunteer experiences we offer them, and the food we share together. While these may sound like common sense, they are not.”

In short, we’re way past the era of simply pushing out information, establishing commonplace HR programs, underscoring perks and benefits, and telling employees what your vision is. This appeals only to the logical parts of an employee’s brain. To unlock human potential, attract new employees and get current employees truly invested in your company and their jobs, do one simple thing: get emotional.

Greg Monaco is a founding partner of Monaco Lange.