Are Negative Emotions Brewing in Your Workplace?

Watch out for these signs that workers may be harboring negative feelings about your organization.

For more than two decades, I’ve been studying workplace circumstances that evoke negative emotions. My research, often conducted with colleagues, explores the darker side of work — from exceptional, highly dramatic organizational crises to the everyday problem of routinely disrespectful interactions among coworkers (a phenomenon for which my coauthor Lynne Andersson and I coined the term “workplace incivility”).

Via surveys, focus groups, and interviews, thousands of respondents have described their experiences with causes, circumstances, and outcomes that involved negative emotions. And a crucial finding across our studies is that few organizational leaders handle negative emotions well.

There’s a reason for that. In the short term, ignoring or stifling negative emotions in the workplace is easier for managers than dealing with them. However, my research with colleagues has shown that discounting or brushing aside negative emotions can cost organizations millions of dollars in lost productivity, disengagement, and dissipated effectiveness.

For example, in a study of 137 managers enrolled in an executive MBA program, Christine Porath of Georgetown University and I found that negative emotions led them to displace bad feelings onto their organizations by decreasing their effort or time at work, lowering their performance or quality standards, or eroding their commitment to their organizations.

Employees who harbor negative sentiments lose gusto and displace their own negative emotional reactions onto subordinates, colleagues, bosses, and outsiders. They also find ways to avoid coworkers and circumstances that they associate with their negative feelings, which can short-circuit communication lines and clog resource access. Consider these pricey consequences as incentives to face, rather than avoid, darker workplace emotions.

Because expressing negative emotions is frowned on in many organizations, you can’t expect all employees to readily admit when they are experiencing negative feelings about work. However, there are some warning signals that negative emotions may be developing into a problem for your team. Watch out for these common signs that workers may be harboring negative feelings about your organization:

  • Increased use of “personal” days or remote-work options
  • An increase in unexplained late arrivals and early departures
  • Resistance to joining teams, adding team members, or seeking information from others
  • Physical isolation (such as sitting alone at lunch, closing office doors)
  • Complaints about workers or the environment from employees, customers, or other key stakeholders
  • More frequent mention of negative emotional states

It is unusual for employees to say directly, “I’m angry,” “I’m scared,” or “I’m sad,” but there are terms that are more commonly used in the workplace to represent these emotions. Listen for any of these words:

  • When angry, employees may say they feel: annoyed, irritated, offended, incensed, cranky, pushed too far, frustrated, ticked off, exasperated, appalled, furious, or resentful.
  • When scared, employees may say they feel: worried, concerned, nervous, anxious, distressed, upset, troubled, shocked, tense, uneasy, insecure, or panicky.
  • When sad, employees may say they feel: down, out of it, demotivated, discouraged, tired, pessimistic, out of sorts, bummed out, hurt, hopeless, disappointed, lonely, embarrassed, humiliated, or insulted.

The good news? The benefits of addressing negative emotions can be significant. Managers who promptly do so can stem interpersonal turbulence and keep satisfaction, engagement, and productivity intact on their teams. Moreover, those who take the initiative to step up often experience personal gratification from helping others in meaningful ways. For more about how to address negative workplace emotions productively, see my recent MIT Sloan Management Review article, “The Smart Way to Respond to Negative Emotions at Work.”