Negative Emotions in the Workplace
It is impossible to block negative emotions from the workplace. Whether provoked by bad decisions, misfortune, or employees’ personal problems, no organization is immune from trouble. And trouble agitates bad feelings. However, in many workplaces, negative emotions are brushed aside; in some, they are taboo. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies is effective. When negative emotions churn, it takes courage not to flinch.
It is impossible to block negative emotions from the workplace. Whether provoked by bad decisions, misfortune, or employees’ personal problems, no organization is immune from trouble. And trouble agitates bad feelings. However, in many workplaces, negative emotions are brushed aside; in some, they are taboo. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies is effective. When negative emotions churn, it takes courage not to flinch. Insight and readiness are key to developing effective responses.
Facing Negative Emotions
In the short term, ignoring or stifling negative emotions is easier than dealing with them. However, research shows that brushing aside negative emotions can cost organizations millions of dollars in lost productivity, disengagement, and dissipated effectiveness.
Research tells us that employees who harbor negative sentiments lose gusto and displace their own negative emotional reactions on subordinates, colleagues, bosses, and outsiders. They also find ways to stay clear of coworkers and circumstances that they associate with their negative feelings, which can short-circuit communication lines and clog resource access.
3 Important incentives to face, rather than avoid
- Look yourself in the mirror. If you lack emotional self-awareness, your own concerns will inhibit your abilities and color the emotions that you tune into.8 Next time your own negative emotions are rising, reflect. Recognize and harness your own emotional triggers. Which conditions or individuals provoke emotional reactions from you? Note circumstances and your typical responses. Ask trusted colleagues and friends for their observations of your behavior.
- Stay calm, breathe deep, and model behavior. When your negative feelings stir in the workplace, take a slow and deliberate account of what is going on. Our earliest studies of incivility uncovered a typical escalating cycle of tit-for-tat behavior when emotions were high.9 Rather than fueling that cycle, let agitation serve as a signal to step back.
Instead of engaging in reciprocal behavior, practice overcoming physiological signals that could draw you into the drama. For example, when you feel your emotions rising, pause and take a focused deep breath rather than bursting forth with a knee-jerk reaction. That momentary delay can help reason rather than instinct drive your response. Think broadly, and aim to spread composure by modeling it. Build a habit of passing on fewer negative emotions than you receive, regardless of the circumstances.
- Fine-tune your radar. Watch facial expressions and body language, especially when nonverbal behaviors don’t seem to match what you are hearing. To build this skill, practice observing and interpreting emotional actions and reactions at meetings and in public settings. As the chief legal officer of an international chemical company said, “The greatest benefit of preparing for crises as a team is learning the ‘tells’ that the other leaders exhibit when their negative emotions rise. Over the years, those subtle signals have helped me determine when to step in and how to frame my suggestions, especially when crises are brewing.” Take account of the context and the stakes for individuals. Afterward, check your accuracy by seeking others’ perspectives about what occurred.
When you’re listening, listen fully. This requires much more than simply focusing on the speaker. If you are checking email on your phone or laptop, you’re not listening fully. If your internal dialogue is blaming or criticizing, you’re not listening fully. If you’re jumping to solutions or thinking about the story that you will share when it’s your turn to talk, you’re not listening fully. Cease these behaviors to demonstrate that you care. You will catch signals earlier and interpret their meanings more astutely.
About the Author
Christine M. Pearson is a professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. A groundbreaking international business school for more than 70 years, Thunderbird is a unit of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.
About the Research
This article draws on a stream of research that the author, in collaboration with coauthors, has carried out for more than two decades to understand how managers and employees handle the dark side of workplace behavior — from exceptional incidents involving organizational crises to commonplace uncivil interactions among employees. All of the studies examined some aspect of the role of negative emotions. Read the full article for references cited.