Cognitive Culture Vs. Emotional Culture

Dec 21, 2018 4 Min Read
cognitive culture

I often get asked about the difference between cognitive and emotional cultures. Here is my take on it.

Cognitive culture

Cognitive culture is sometimes defined as “our mental and symbolic representations of reality” or in other words, our worldview. This is very much about 'thinking'.

Cognitive culture is the culture that is typically addressed upfront by organisations. This is the culture that is advertised to the external world – in particular, clients – but also the culture that the business is aiming for, often called target or ideal culture.

Typical elements that feed into the cognitive culture include:

  • Cultural attributes such as customer centricity, collaboration, innovation or agility
  • Behaviours. For example, speaking up, responsiveness, empowerment, making things simple
  • Stated values. These values are identified by the organisation as those needing to be lived by employees in their daily interactions. However, what we often find is that stated values are not always the values espoused by the people. This is where emotional culture makes an appearance.
  • Any artefact or norms. Processes and systems fit into this category. They have been designed (or not) to push people to behave in a certain way. For example, the performance management system may reveal that collective performance is more important than individual performance, or vice-versa.

Cognitive culture sets the tone for how employees think and behave at work. It often starts with an intellectual exercise, and it is the elements of culture that are usually the most visible in the business.

Emotional culture

Emotional culture can be defined as the culture centred around the shared affective values of an organisation ‒ i.e. feelings, moods, and attitudes.

The emotional culture is made up of emotions and feelings, including fears, that employees experience in the workplace, and of everything that leads to those emotions being expressed or repressed.

Typical elements that feed into the emotional culture include:

  • Lived values. These are different from the stated values. Lived values are often the result of external and internal events, such as a crisis, changes in leadership, changes in the environment, or deliberate attempts at shaping values.
  • Feelings are often the direct result of particular emotions playing out in the workplace. Engagement data measures those feelings, and in particular, how committed employees are in doing their work.
  • Emotions. A huge variety of shared emotions can be found in any organisation. I often find the following fears when conducting culture assessments: fear of exclusion, fear of making a mistake, fear of leaders / hierarchy, fear of not knowing, fear of not being perfect.
  • Any artefact or norms that contribute to the creation of particular emotions. Many symbols in an organisation can send a message about what is valued and create emotions and feelings that are at odds with what the business intends to create.

Put simply, cognitive culture is about thinking, emotional culture is about feeling.

What is the link between cognitive and emotional cultures?

One does not exist without the other.

The emotional culture can reinforce the cognitive culture or play against it. A large gap between emotional and cognitive cultures tends to indicate that the culture is not being managed actively in the business, that leaders may not walk their talk.

When this is the case, you find a lot of cynicism amongst employees, and the emotional culture undermines what the business is trying to achieve.

The two types of cultures are created and reinforced through different mechanisms. Cognitive culture is created through strategic culture planning, role modelling by leaders, and a combination of systems and symbols. Emotional culture is less influenced by systems but a lot more by leadership and symbols.

What does this mean for your culture journey?

Working on culture means aligning your emotional culture with your cognitive culture. According to mental health expert Arnold Hartman, the smaller the gap, the healthier your culture.
You may be across your cognitive culture but may not know your emotional culture. One of the first steps of a culture journey is to discover your emotional culture.

This is about diagnosing culture to understand why it is the way it is. What is the shared belief system that exists in the organisation and pushes people to behave in a certain way? What are the values that are truly lived? What are the fears, emotions, and feelings that impact people?

Now THAT'S what you call culture.

Once you deeply understand your emotional culture, you can compare it with your cognitive culture and assess the extent of the gap.

To reduce the gap, you will need to support your leaders in becoming role models of the behaviours you want to see displayed by employees. You will also need to realign your systems and processes with what you are trying to achieve. Furthermore, you will need to support leaders and managers to have more courage to act in spite of some of the fears they may experience.

Core qualities of responsible, principled, and openness will provide employees with tools to face their emotions and feelings.

Negative emotions and feelings will take time to shift. This can be done with a combination of 1:1 and group coaching, select use of specific symbols, and an active communication and engagement program.

Emotional culture is rarely managed as deliberately as cognitive culture ‒ and often, it’s not managed at all. Companies can suffer a lot as a result and should therefore make sure they tackle both types of culture.

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Jerome is a culture change expert and a management consultant with over 25 years of experience in culture transformation, change management, leadership development, and business improvement. He helps organisations assess and shape their culture in alignment with their strategic goals.

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