Why Focus on Emotions?

Emotions@Work Why Focus on Emotions?No matter how hard we try to hide them, mask them or suppress them, there are always going to be emotions in the workplace.

Emotions@Work® programs are based on a wide body of evidence-based research that is conclusive in its understanding of emotion as an integral component of decision and action.

The research shows the following benefits for your organisation when emotions are addressed in the workplace:

  • The development of a greater understanding amongst employees of their automatic responses.
  • A reduction in interpersonal conflict and improved relationships with colleagues and clients.
  • Improved work satisfaction.
  • Colleagues positively influencing one another.
  • Better risk management.
  • Greater client satisfaction.

Our programs are tailor-made to suit your organisation’s specific needs because problematic emotion-based behaviour manifests itself in different ways in different environments.

Below is a taste of the current findings relating to how emotions impact on group dynamics, decision-making, performance and productivity in the workplace:

People learn to react automatically to triggers from past events. These triggers – positive and negative – can be held in the unconscious memory. An angry voice, for example, may trigger unconscious memories of punishment and send an employee into a state of fear.

Emotion “is a brain phenomenon vastly different from thought” with “its own neurochemical and physiological basis” and “unique language in which the brain speaks”. Emotions are “produced by the synthesis of highly-differentiated structures that have been refined through experience and are bound by culture learning into emotion schemes.” (Greenberg, 2010).

Stress is managed by the, amygdala, the emotional centre of our brain that was designed to warn us of threats and keep us safe. This is where the flight or fight response originates, a physiological response that is triggered by certain environments.

Often our focus is fixated on this physical response and what it tells us about what we want or need. We can become ‘hyjacked’ by this primitive defence mechanism and unable to think constructively about an appropriate response to the situation in which we find ourselves and therefore behave in ways that are unhelpful and sometimes even destructive (Goleman, 2014).

Research suggests that humans have three goals: achieving and maintaining status; secure attachment; and cooperating with peers.

When an employee is fearful of losing status, for example, they may feel threatened on an interpersonal or physical level. When they are sad, they may mentally detach from their colleagues. Being happy is likely to elicit cooperation with others, whereas being angry is likely to lead to conflict with another.

When threats to these goals occur, people will frequently join together to avoid, or defend against, the danger (Oeatley & Johnson-Laird, 2011).

Research shows that a strong emotional link between workers can increase employee satisfaction, and co-worker solidarity is associated with greater job satisfaction and good relations with management (Hartel, Gough, & Hartel, 2008).

Emotional contagion is the ‘‘process by which a person or group influences the emotions or behaviour of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioural attitudes’’. Colleagues ‘infect’ each other with positive and negative emotions, that directly influence the quality of their collaborative work together (Anger Elfenbein, 2014).

Because expressing negative emotion in the workplace is considered unacceptable,  employees use coping mechanisms. These mechanisms are not fail safe and can be broken down by persistent emotional pressure: –

  • Neutralising: the emphasis on role obligations prevents employees from allowing their emotions to emerge.
  • Buffering: because not all emotion can be prevented, employees attempt to compartmentalise emotionality and rationality. This is common amongst frontline staff, such as customer service representatives and receptionists; and amongst professions that are expected to show authentic concern care for others, such as doctors.
  • Prescribing: this is common for employees who are directed to behave as if they are feeling a certain way for a specified period of time. Examples include flight attendants who are trained to appear cheerful; and debt collectors who are trained to convey a sense of urgency. This can lead to suppression of emotion.
  • Normalising: no matter how tight the controls, disruptive or socially unacceptable emotions will appear. Employees may attempt to minimise emotional outbursts through, for example, using humour. Police officers, for instance, may use jokes or sarcasm to dispel fear or disgust at the scene of a crime. Emotional outbursts may be followed by an apology. Or individuals frequently displaying emotion in an unacceptable manner may be given a pejorative label (“bleeding heart”, “petty tyrant”). It’s important to be aware that these labels serve to stigmatise the individual (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1995).

Emotion processes are a socially constructed means of interpreting the world. Emotions signal changes in our environment. These signals are typically interpreted through comparison with individual and collective expectations.

When our expectations are violated by an event that generates emotional (psychophysiological, biological or mental) and/or affective (the experience of emotion) reactions, we may or may not act on them.  Others in the same environment may not even notice these violations or know that other group members noticed them. Our peers, supervisors, or subordinates may need to be informed or convinced.

For organisations operating at high levels of risk, this increases the need to monitor the working environment for unmet expectations and respond early and actively to violations (Allen, Scott, Tracy, & Crowe, 2014).

Front-line staff exposed to negative customer interactions risk having their emotions triggered. This is because an individual’s appraisal of events, not the event itself, determines their emotional responses. Employees who are more skilled at managing their emotions following their appraisal of an event, should experience fewer harmful effects of negative emotions than those less skilled at managing their emotions (Hartel, Gough, & Hartel, 2008).

Being alert to how work-family conflict can manifest in emotional expression is critical to contributing to a safe and productive work environment. A drop in performance, disruptive behaviour and conflict between employees are just some of the signs that staff members may be struggling to manage and appropriately express their stress.

Work-family conflict occurs when an employee plays multiple roles which place incompatible demands on them. It goes without saying that family stresses can negatively impact on work life and vice versa. Factors such as time demands, workload, level of involvement, and human resource policies can predict the onset of stress. How this stress is expressed can be attributed to the employee’s locus of control. The impact on the workplace can be local (e.g. affecting the manager’s performance) or global (impacting the wider team) (Poposki, 2011).

As a manager or team member, understanding that all people have emotional responses in the workplace is important to learning how to successfully manage human dynamics.

In Western culture, stereotypes exist about how men and women express their emotions. These views can effect how employees judge the actions of their colleagues as well as their perceptions of their own behaviour. These views also influence how we judge – and react to – other people’s expressions of emotion.

Research has shown, for example, that physicians and medical students appear to use information about emotions differently when making diagnoses for women compared to men (Shields, 2013).

Adolphs, R. (1999). The Human Amygdala and Emotion. The Neuroscientist (5), 125.

Allen, J. A., Scott, C. W., Tracy, S. J., & Crowe, J. D. (2014). The signal provision of emotion: using emotions to enhance reliability via sense making. International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion , 6 (3), 240-260.

Anger Elfenbein, H. (2014). The many faces of emotional contagion: An affective process theory of affective linkage. Organisational Psychology Review (4), 326.

Ashforth, B. E., & Humphrey, R. H. (1995). Emotion in the Workplace: A Reappraisal. Human Relations (48), 97.

Goleman, D. (n.d.). Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved December 2014, from Daniel Goleman: http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/emotional-intelligence

Greenberg, L. S. (2010). Emotion-Focused Therapy: A Clinical Synthesis. FOCUS , 8 (1), 32-42.

Hartel, C. E., Gough, H., & Hartel, G. F. (2008). Work-group emotional climate, emotion management skills, and service, attitudes and performance. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources (46), 21.

Oatley, K., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2011). Basic Emotions in Social Relationships, Reasoning, and Psychological Illnesses. Emotion Review (3), 424.

Poposki, E. M. (2011). The Blame Game: Exploring the Nature and Correlates of Attributions Following Work-Family Conflict. Group & Organisation Manager (36), 499.

Shields, S. A. (2013). Gender and Emotion: What We Think We Know, What We Need to Know, and Why It Mattersmatters. Psychology of Women Quarterly (37), 423.