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When managers fail to notice or respond to negative emotions, they subsequently encounter increases in rifts, resentment, and dissatisfaction among employees. When negative emotions are allowed to brew, physiological predisposition can cause coworkers to mimic the movements, postures, and facial expressions of those feeling bad. 
   
Notably, this synchronization happens automatically, so others may mirror negative expressions without awareness that they are doing so. Unconsciously passing on negative emotions can erode productivity and cooperation. In the worst cases, managers have described a cloud of negative emotions that can spread throughout the workplace, making it more difficult to recruit and retain the best employees.
In a recent study exploring negative incidents at work, 99 managers at an international Fortune 100 manufacturer shared examples of early warning signals that were missed prior to negative incidents, despite employee concerns. In some of the cases, larger problems grew in the interim, and delays complicated rectifying or learning from difficult circumstances.
   
The benefits of addressing negative emotions can be significant. Promptly stepping up can stem interpersonal turbulence and keep satisfaction, engagement, and productivity intact. Moreover, those who take the initiative to step up often experience personal gratification from helping others in meaningful ways.
     

Transform Tension Into Collaboration
October 25, 2017 | Tempe, AZ

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3 Ways to Step Up
   
  1. Tend to signals of negative emotions early. Watch for warning signs across your team. Are individuals putting in fewer hours or less effort? Has engagement dwindled? Are fewer employees showing up for discretionary activities such as celebrations or noncompulsory meetings? In our research and practice, these behaviors have signaled underlying negative emotions. Take a close look at hard data and trends that can be signs of dissatisfaction and withdrawal, such as late arrivals, absenteeism, and voluntary turnover.
    Even small supportive gestures from managers can improve employees’ ability to cope. Anticipate that employees facing tough times will have negative feelings. Discuss and determine what employees need and what you are able to offer. Convey frank optimism and confidence that they can manage the challenges. Find ways to offer additional support and resources to help them.
       
  2. Seek out troubled employees. When behaviors seem emotionally charged, it can be challenging to understand what is happening. Start by gathering data. Ask simple, neutral questions to get a conversation going, such as “How are you doing today?” or “Everything OK?” Then, tune in sharply to the response, taking stock of subtle indicators like volume, pitch, and speed of speech. Consider whether an employee’s behaviors and expressions are unusual or out of sync with the rhythm of your conversation. Listen for veiled references to negative emotions. Employees may not be comfortable saying they are sad, but they might tell you they feel discouraged or disappointed. 
        
  3. Resist the urge to fix others’ problems for them. Be quick to listen and offer support but slow to advise. As a senior production manager in a manufacturing company explained, “What works for me is to voice my concerns, lightly, and then wait for the response. I’m also really careful not to jump into the role of being the parent.” Ask questions to help employees determine what the best approaches would be. Help employees map out specific individuals in their network who could provide the support they need.
       
When negative emotions are rooted in conflicts among employees, strive to get adversaries to work together to resolve their differences. Urge them to prepare for a discussion together and, in that discussion, to stick to the issue at hand. To drive reconciliation, help them understand the personal costs and larger stakes if they cannot move past their differences.
   
Sometimes, individuals cannot get unstuck from their negative emotions. If troubled employees are unwilling to consider alternative perspectives or approaches, accept that for the time being. Rather than push harder, take a step back, observe, and remain available, as appropriate.
   
Do not assume that negative emotions have dissolved when hard times seem to have passed. The full significance of negative circumstances may not become evident to those affected until later. 
For example, although you may be relieved by employees’ initial acceptance of organizational shakeouts, don’t miss or ignore what often follows. Sadness can emerge as reality sets in about losing colleagues or routines. During this time, don’t dispassionately direct employees to put the past behind them. The impact can be depleting. As an information technology (IT) manager who survived layoffs explained, “The new leaders keep warning us, ‘It’s time to move on.’ I resent it. They make it seem like having legitimate concerns is a personal shortcoming.”
    
  
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.i All of the studies examined some aspect of the role of negative emotions.