Emotions and business historically didn’t mix, at any level. Workers were supposed to be unthinking cogs in a machine; leaders were supposed to be unfeeling hands at the tiller. Since the 1980s, thankfully, there’s been a vast body of research in neuroscience, psychology, biology and organisational behaviour, showing that emotions are actually central to the life of business.
How we feel affects everything from our ability to assess risks and make decisions to how well we co-operate and communicate, how freely we think and how hard we work. The 21st century is surely a good time to be emotional at work.
When we think about useful emotions, of course, we tend to think of the cute, fluffy ones – happiness, enthusiasm, trust, courage, kindness and the like. But in so doing, are we overlooking the merits of their more venomous cousins – anger, anxiety, even hate?
‘Any highly intense emotion, whether it’s extreme enthusiasm, rage or hate, isn’t typically productive in work environments because it completely hijacks your system,’ says Michael Parke, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. ‘But the more common negative emotions – anxiety, stress, frustration, anger – are very good at signalling and prioritising problems.’
Parke has recently published research showing how firms could be missing out by suppressing such emotions at work. The results are perhaps surprising.
‘Anger can be very motivational in short spurts, leading to a quick reaction to address the problem at hand,’ says Parke. Mild anxiety, meanwhile can help with reliability by keeping people vigilant and cautious - as opposed to positive moods, which can sometimes leave people with the impression that they are safe doing something when they’re actually not.
Even frustration – that most maligned of emotional maladies – can be useful, by acting as a spur to hard action. ‘Often in creative work, negative emotions are inherently involved. You reach a block and get frustrated, or you’re getting negative feedback,’ says Parke.
‘Allowing those to be part of the process, acknowledging them and dealing with them can increase creativity because people are more candid with their feedback, more open when sharing frustrations, and more willing to work through them.’
It’s not the emotions you have, it’s how you deal with them
Time to unleash the dark side at work, then? Not exactly. Clearly, these aren’t the only outcomes that can come from negative emotions. Anger could just as easily turn into resentment and relationship breakdowns, frustration can kill engagement, and anxiety can become a serious mental health issue.
The key is managing these emotions well, both as individuals and as organisations. What that means is not old school suppression, which can create resentment and stifle creativity, but allowing a culture of openness to emotions like anger and worry.
Achieving that openness comes down in large part to leadership. ‘Biologically, we are wired to catch emotions from one another. So we mimic facial expressions, and when someone’s in a good mood, we’re more likely to be in a good mood. That’s really important for leaders because they have a stronger influence. Their emotions have a stronger effect than peers, where there isn’t that power difference,’ explains Parke.
This idea of ‘emotional contagion’ can be harnessed to create an open culture when the leaders themselves are open.
It links to the concept that Google made famous in their research into effective teams, ‘psychological safety’, that feeling that you can say what you think and feel without fear of judgement or reprisal. The tech giant found that the best way of getting people to open up to you is to open up to them. And until the leader does it, who will believe that it really is acceptable?
Of course, the leader who encourages the expression of the full range of emotions has to be willing and able to handle them when they come. ‘You could have leaders who say yeah, I’m really interested in hearing what you’re feeling, and then they just botch it - that could actually create more harm, because you’re not dealing with those authentic feelings in a good way,’ says Parke.
As with many matters of leadership, a lot comes down to awareness of your own actions and how they will affect different people. One person may deal with forthright, negative feedback in a constructive way, but another might be upset and stifled by it. Some people might need more reassurance than others.
It’s also wise not to leap headlong into a culture of openness from one where everyone was guarded. ‘It doesn’t have to be everyone singing Kumbaya and sharing how we’re feeling. It could start with one-to-one meetings, sharing feedback, then a small team working on a project to air grievances. You can slowly build in a safe environment before you start opening up on a broader level,’ says Parke.
The idea of encouraging everyone to be honest with their feelings - warts and all - can be a difficult one, even if you do it gradually, have the right intentions and believe it can make a positive difference to your workplace. Like a lot of good things in life, though, it just requires a little courage.