The emotional workplace

We've all worked with them: those co-workers who are never positive, who always come equipped with a pin to burst everybody else's bubbles.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

They can suck the energy out of meetings, dampen the enthusiasm of those working near them and generally make the office a less pleasant and productive place to do business. In an article published on Knowledge@Wharton, Sigal Barsade, a Wharton management professor who studies the influence of emotions on the workplace, says: "We engage in emotional contagion. Emotions travel from person to person like a virus."

Barside is the co-author of a paper called, "Why does affect matter in organisations?" ("affect" is another word for "emotion" in behaviour studies). In the paper, Barside and her co-author Donald Gibson, of Fairfield University's Dolan School of Business, write: "The state of literature shows that affect matters because people are not isolated ‘emotional islands'. Rather, they bring all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions influence others."

The paper identifies three different types of feelings:

*Discrete, short-lived emotions such as joy, anger, fear and disgust.

*Moods, which are longer-lasting feelings and not necessarily tied to a particular cause.

*Dispositional, or personality traits, which define a person's overall approach to life.

All three types of feelings can have an impact on the mood of other people, the paper argues. And even subtle displays of emotion, such as a smile or a frown, can strongly influence how those around you feel, it says. You may think you are good at controlling your emotions, but your co-workers may still be able to pick up on your moods.

In a section examining the way employees regulate their public behaviour to comply with certain expectations, Barsade and Gibson distinguish between "surface acting" and "deep acting". The former term describes how an exhausted and stressed bank cashier forces herself to smile at an angry customer whose card has been rejected. "Deep acting", by contrast, would involve understanding why the customer is frustrated and displaying emotions that convey genuine empathy. This latter approach is healthier, Barsade says, because it causes less stress and burnout than faking emotions.

But is it possible - or even desirable - to be ‘authentic' all the time? What if the company is losing money, feeling the effects of downsizing or facing possible takeover? Should the manager convey his true feelings to his colleagues, or put on a cheerful front in order to maintain a positive atmosphere? Barsade suggests that it is possible to convey emotions that are both positive and authentic, saying something like: "I know you're worried. Things aren't looking good, but you know, we have a way out of this and we can work [on it] together".

Barsade argues that while it will never be possible to control the emotions of others, it is possible to manage how you - and your staff - respond to them. If you're in charge of chairing the weekly staff meeting, you could ensure that the person who rejects everybody else's ideas will not be allowed to dominate the tone of the meeting. Barsade's research, most recently in long-term care facilities, showed her that in workplaces which have a positive culture - which she calls a "culture of love" - the occupants end up faring better than those in less compassionate environments.

The challenge of managing emotions in the office has been made harder by the emergence of emails and instant messaging, Barsade argues. This is because they do not convey facial expressions, intonation and body language, making them more likely to be misunderstood.

According to Barsade, some people work hard at making their emails sound neutral, which often have the effect of making them sound curt, while others pepper their emails with capital letters and exclamation marks in a bid to convey more emotion, which carries even greater risks.

Companies need to think hard about how to use email better, Barsade says. "If something is important, and you know the emotional context is going to be an issue, then pick up the phone; don't just rely on emails." And sometimes even the phone is too impersonal. "If it's really important, you just have to fly to where they are and meet them face to face to get the message across," she says.

Source: Why Does Affect Matter in Organisations?
Sigal Barside and Donald Gibson
Knowledge@Wharton

Review by: Nick Loney

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