About an hour after a dairy calf is born, it’ll walk on its own. Those first few steps often turn into leaps and awkward sprints that look as much like joy as anything you’ll ever see.

It’s at about that time that farmers take the newborns away from their mums. There are many legitimate reasons for doing so, including the fact that domesticated dairy cows are often horrible at raising their young.

But researcher Daniel Weary believes this practice has an unintended consequence. The separation creates something of a depression in the young calves. Over time, it can fester and lead to a malaise similar to pessimism in humans.

“There’s a change of mood that goes from the initial injury and then into a long-term change in behaviour,” said Weary, an applied biology professor and associate dean at the University of British Columbia.

It’s not just a moral dilemma. Depressed cows produce less milk. So separating calves from their mothers in the least painful way possible could make business sense, not just ethical sense.

“Maybe there are ways to avoid this pain so that the animal doesn’t suffer,” Weary said. “Animals have emotional reactions to things, and it may be beneficial to control this.”

The link between emotions and productivity has become something of a popular concept in business, too. More companies are adopting the idea that managers need to be in tune to the emotions of their employees.

From banned to embraced

For those who entered the workforce in the 1980s or earlier, it might all sound like malarkey. Back then, managers were expected to have a stern response to an employee who had an emotional reaction in the office, said Dr Kimberlyn Leary, chief psychologist at Cambridge Health Alliance and associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“A lot of thinking in management used to be that managers should remove emotion from the equation, like dumping the fluid from a hydraulic system,” Leary said.

Not these days. More and more, managers are expected to have a good sense of attunement, or what some companies call emotional intelligence. That begins, Leary said, by figuring out what employees are feeling, and why. Maybe they’re feeling that other team members are not considering their ideas or not respecting them.

Next, managers need to figure out how to head off future problems If an employee was getting upset for not being heard at meetings, simply calling on him at the next staff conference may stave off a future outburst.

At the same time, cultural mores have to be considered. What’s considered a reasonable emotional response might not be the same in, say, Germany, where negotiations are often analytical, versus South America, where business is often personal.

“Managers need to figure out the local reactions in the places where they’re operating,” Leary said. “They need to ask themselves if the emotions they’re seeing are the custom where they are.”

Managers also need to scrutinise themselves. Kidney dialysis company DaVita Healthcare Partners, wants managers to consider more than just their employees’ emotions.

“How we approach this as a management issue is that we always start with yourself,” said Dave Hoerman, who holds the title of vice president of wisdom at DaVita’s headquarters in Denver, Colorado. “The more managers are aware of themselves, the more healthy and happy their team members will be.”

Difficulties faced by managers at DaVita are often related to something that the manager needs to self-diagnose, Hoerman said. A manager who complains about a team that won’t stop fighting may discover she has created a culture that allows the arguments.

“If you want to recognise why a teammate is struggling, first look at yourself,” Hoerman said. 

Of course, not everybody is going to be good at staying in tune with their own emotions and those of their team members. To help those who are less emotionally aware, Leary insists managers take the temperature of their employees by asking subordinates about the mood of the office.

It’s like that for farmers, too, said Weary, the Canadian biologist.

“There are people with this sense [who] can just read the emotions of their animals, and there are others who have to really work at it,” Weary said. “Farmers … need to treat [dairy cows] well to keep them producing.”

For managers, treating employees well might be a bit more complicated than keeping cows content. But an emotionally stable workforce? That’s a good step toward success.