Many executives try to ignore negative emotions in their workplaces — a tactic that can be counterproductive and costly. If employees’ negative feelings are responded to wisely, they may provide important feedback.
“Our company was acquired and our workforce was cut by 70%. We’re each carrying about twice the workload now, with a fraction of the resources. Employees at all levels are frustrated, angry, and anxious about their futures, and not one of our new executives seems to care. Pride in the organization has dried up. People are too stressed to do anything but keep their heads down and pound out their work. Morale is at an all-time low. You can feel it when you come in the door. Yet our new leaders are stunned when they learn someone else is quitting.”
— Manager, global services organization
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.
Savvy managers and executives quickly learn to cultivate sunny emotions at work. Practical recommendations and abundant research accentuate the benefits of encouraging positivity in the workplace.1 Reinforcement is often immediate. The swell of good feelings is palpable when executives successfully cheerlead for stretch goals, muster enthusiasm about new products, or celebrate team successes. Sometimes, these efforts are irrefutably tied to greater improvements, providing additional opportunities for positive emotional crescendos from leaders.
Steering toward positive emotions is the norm. But there are reasons for negative emotions in the workplace — from erosion of the implicit work contract between bosses and employees, to ever-growing demands to do more with less, to relentless rapid change. Today, it takes both positive and negative emotional insight for organizations and individuals to function effectively over the long term. Negative emotions, it turns out, not only punctuate obstacles but also unleash opportunities.2Negative emotions can provide feedback that broadens thinking and perspectives, and that enables people to see things as they are. When executives step up to deal with rising anger among employees, they may discover exploitations of management power. Similarly, managers who address signals of employee sadness may learn that the rumor mill is spreading false news about closures and terminations.
For more than two decades, I have studied workplace circumstances that evoke negative emotions. (See “About the Research.”) My research, often conducted with colleagues, explores the darker side of work — from exceptional, highly dramatic organizational crises (such as workplace homicide or product tampering) to the everyday problem of disrespectful interactions among coworkers (a phenomenon for which my coauthor Lynne Andersson and I coined the term “workplace incivility”3). Via surveys, focus groups, and interviews, thousands of respondents have described their experiences with causes, circumstances, and outcomes that involved negative emotions.4 A crucial finding across our studies is that few leaders handle negative emotions well.
When it comes to managing negative emotions, most executives respond by pressuring employees to conceal the emotions. Or they hand off distressed employees to the human resources department. A small proportion consider emotions detrimental to operations and assert that feelings should be kept out of the workplace. Some blame their own bosses’ compulsions for unbroken cheeriness, which obliges them to tamp down negative sentiments of their own and those of their subordinates. A general manager I interviewed voiced a typical rationale: “Our CEO doesn’t want to hear anything negative. Not a word about dissatisfaction.”
Many executives complain that dealing with employees’ negative sentiments drains too much time and energy. Some express concern that their interventions might exacerbate rather than improve circumstances, or that addressing concerns might unleash stronger reactions than they could handle. Additionally, executives worry that uncorking employees’ negative emotions might trigger an unwelcome flood of their own bad feelings.
Many executives report they’ve had no training about handling negative emotions effectively and a dearth of role models for doing so. One of my recent studies validates this claim. I asked 124 managers and executives about their personal experiences of negative emotions at work. About 20% reported that they have never, in their entire careers, had a single boss who managed negative emotions effectively.5 Every respondent was readily able to name bosses who had mismanaged relevant issues and to describe specific opportunities that had been missed, as well as associated organizational costs.
Most managers admit that they simply do not know how to deal with negative emotions. I would like to change that. The advice here is based on research by my coauthors and me about workplace crises and incivility, as well as our observations of the impacts and responses engendered by both. Within these contexts, my fellow researchers and I have studied how organizations handle negative emotions. We asked about what works and what doesn’t. Some recommendations here flow directly from data collected for our studies. Others are based on lessons I have learned while shadowing and consulting employees at all levels as they prepared for, managed, and learned from crises and instances of incivility. Additionally, in light of sensitivities toward negative emotions, I turned to clinical psychologists who work with managers and executives to validate the following recommendations.