“Empathy. Connections. Trust. Vulnerability. These are vague concepts that don’t fit the realities of a public service operating model”. 

I recently heard a respected public servant and senior leader of a government agency say this in a meeting. While I sympathise, I disagree. It’s true that many organisations — unfortunately — don’t seem to care how their people are, or should be, feeling at work. This is also true in public sector organisations, which in many countries are facing novel challenges while having to do more with less.

In times of volatile change, f-word conversations — where we talk about how we really feel — can be transformational. But feelings can get chucked into the ‘too hard’ basket in times of change. There’s often a sense that being a ‘soft focus’ leader means you’ll struggle to be taken seriously. But your workplace has an emotional culture whether you want one or not, and it matters.

Compelling research published in the Harvard Business Review shows the impact emotions have on how people perform tasks, how engaged and creative they are, how committed, and how they make decisions. When leaders ignore or fail to understand emotion, they’re glossing over a vital component of what makes organisations tick. People, and outcomes, suffer.

Often, there’s some lip service paid to shared values and set behaviours. But these top-down rulesets can breed cynicism. As governments try to effect change from above and reconsider their macro operating models in a transforming global environment, there is power in another approach: finding simple, human routes to better emotional connections at work.

Let’s have a genuine conversation about feelings at work. Using a card game.

A simple tool for structured conversations

The Emotional Culture Deck (ECD) is a free, beautifully simple card-based tool for structured face-to-face (or Zoom-to-Zoom) conversations. It was developed by me, Jeremy Dean, founder of rides&elephants in New Zealand, and it provides clear steps and shared vocabulary while celebrating that people are not algorithmic robots.

The central questions it poses are "how are we feeling, and how do we want to feel?”, but it can be adapted to many different contexts.

People want to talk about the ‘f word’, especially at work, but they don’t know how

The Emotional Culture Deck is designed to answer the big problems of systemic workplace culture by starting small, meaningful conversations right now. If you want a quick intro, there’s a one-minute explainer here. And if you just want to dive straight in, you can download the deck here.

We’ve used the Emotional Culture Deck to help spark positive change in public sector organisations across the United Kingdom, US, Australia, Italy, Singapore, and New Zealand. In the current environment, the ECD is especially useful for remote workshops and team check-ins, and we’ve developed a suite of complementary free tools to support this.

How it works

At its core, the Emotional Culture Deck is a set of cards that represent a wide range of feelings, such as “appreciated”, “stuck”, “anxious”, “proud” and so on. Designed for two core conversations, each guided by instruction cards, for leaders and employees.

As you’ll see in the video below, everyone uses their own pack to lay out the cards and begin sorting through their emotional priorities — what they want to feel and not feel. Further into the process, the conversation shifts to the triggers for these feelings, how they can be supported or managed, and ultimately the keys to action for shaping a stronger shared emotional culture.


How to set up and use the Emotional Culture Deck

It is not uncommon for leaders to express their nervousness and unease about fostering these conversations in their teams. There is often an underlying fear about what might, or might not happen as a result of talking about emotions and feelings in the workplace.

All organisations that aim to make a real difference for human beings should invest in and think deeply about their emotional culture

Before a series of public sector workshops we recently facilitated, the leader of the team said“my biggest fear is that people won’t engage in the exercise. Talking about feelings does not sit comfortably with a lot of my people and this is going to force them to do that.” 

But this leader's fear and nervousness melted away quickly. They suddenly experienced the playful nature of the activity and watched their team open up so willingly in a way that hadn’t happened previously. This type of experience, happening time and time again, reinforced my biggest insight over the past five years. People want to talk about the ‘f word’, especially at work, but they don’t know how. They do not have the labels, and they have never been given permission. But tools like The Emotional Culture Deck finally give people (and leaders) permission.

The Emotional Culture Deck

Are public servants asking the right questions about their workplace culture? Is there a tendency to let systems thinking and top-down priorities overshadow the very real benefits of simply fostering empathy and emotional awareness among colleagues?

In their 2017 book, ‘Reinventing Scale-Ups’, Bren Lowe, Susan Basterfield and Travis Marsh write:

“The best cultures are co-created and subsequently kept healthy when the team proactively decides how it will work together. This process inoculates against unhealthy behaviour”.

All organisations that aim to make a real difference for human beings should invest in and think deeply about their emotional culture. This is especially true for those organisations that enable nations and communities to navigate extraordinary times. Lasting change can start with key conversations, at any level.