The Smart Way to Respond to Negative Emotions at Work

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.

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“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.2 Negative 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.



1. S. Achor, “The Happiness Advantage” (New York: Random House, 2010); E. Denier and R. Biswas-Denier, “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth” (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2011); J. Pryce-Jones, “Happiness at Work” (West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); and M. Seligman, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” (New York: Free Press, 2011).

2. B. Ehrenreich, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009); and T. Kashdan and R. Biswas-Diener, “The Power of Negative Emotion: How Anger, Guilt, and Self-Doubt Are Essential to Success and Fulfillment” (London: OneWorld Publications, 2015).

3. L.M. Andersson and C.M. Pearson, “Tit-for-Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace,” Academy of Management Review 24, no. 3 (July 1999): 452-471.

4. C.M. Pearson, L.M. Andersson, and J.W. Wegner, “When Workers Flout Convention: A Study of Workplace Incivility,” Human Relations 54, no. 11 (November 2001): 1387-1419; and C.M. Pearson and C.L. Porath, “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It” (New York: Penguin/Portfolio, 2009).

5. C.M. Pearson, “Finessing Negative Emotions Ad Hoc,” working paper, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Glendale, Arizona, 2016.

6. C.L. Porath and C.M. Pearson, “Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Workplace Incivility and the Impact of Hierarchical Status,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 42 (December 2012): 326-357.

7. Pearson and Porath, “The Cost of Bad Behavior.”

8. P. Hays, “Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice,” 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2010), 51-71; and G. Parry, “Coping with Crises” (London: Routledge, 1990), 70-73.

9. Andersson and Pearson, “Tit-for-Tat?”

10. Pearson, Andersson, and Wegner, “When Workers Flout Convention”; and C.M. Pearson and C.L. Porath, “On the Nature, Consequences, and Remedies of Workplace Incivility: No Time for ‘Nice’? Think Again,” Academy of Management Executive 19 (February 2005): 7-18.

11. E. Hatfield, J.T. Cacioppio, and R.L. Rapson, “Emotional Contagion” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

12. C.M. Pearson, “Individual, Team and Organizational Ramifications of Stifling Negative Emotions at Work,” working paper, Phoenix, 2016.

13. J. LeDoux, “The Emotional Brain,” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); H. Lerner, “Fear and Other Uninvited Guests” (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 53-58.

14. C.M. Pearson, “Research on Workplace Incivility and Its Connection to Practice,” in “Insidious Workplace Behavior,” ed. J. Greenberg (New York: Routledge, 2011), 149-174; Pearson, Andersson, and Wegner, “When Workers Flout Convention”; and Porath and Pearson, “Emotional and Behavioral Responses.”

15. Pearson and Porath, “On the Nature, Consequences, and Remedies”; and Porath and Pearson, “Emotional and Behavioral Responses.”

16. Porath and Pearson, “Emotional and Behavioral Responses.”

17. Pearson and Porath, “The Cost of Bad Behavior”; Pearson and Porath, “On the Nature, Consequences, and Remedies”; and Porath and Pearson, “Emotional and Behavioral Responses.”

i. These studies include: C. Porath and C. Pearson, “The Price of Incivility,” Harvard Business Review 91, no. 1-2 (Jan.-Feb. 2013): 115-121; Porath and Pearson, “Emotional and Behavioral Responses”; C.M. Pearson and A. Sommer, “Infusing Creativity into Crisis Management: An Essential Approach Today,” Organizational Dynamics 40, no. 1 (Jan.-March 2011): 27-33; Pearson, “Research on Workplace Incivility”; Pearson and Porath, “The Cost of Bad Behavior”; C. Pearson, “Leading through Crisis: 21st Century Global Challenges,” in “Crisis Leadership,” ed. E. James and L. Smith (Charlottesville, Virginia: Darden Business Publishing, 2005), 13-22; C.M. Pearson and C.L. Porath, “On the Nature, Consequences, and Remedies”; C.M. Pearson, L.M. Andersson, and C.L. Porath. “Workplace Incivility,” in “Counterproductive Workplace Behavior: Investigations of Actors and Targets,” ed. S. Fox and P. Spector (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2005), 177-200; Pearson, Andersson, and Wegner, “When Workers Flout Convention”; C.M. Pearson, L.M. Andersson, and C.L. Porath, “Assessing and Attacking Workplace Incivility,” Organizational Dynamics 29, no. 2 (November 2000): 123-137; Andersson and Pearson, “Tit-for-Tat?”; and C.M. Pearson, “Organizations as Targets and Triggers of Aggression and Violence: Framing Rational Explanations for Dramatic Organizational Deviance,” in “Research in the Sociology of Organizations,” vol. 15, ed. P.A. Bamberger and A. Peter (Stamford, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1998), 197-223.

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Comments (6)
Christine Pearson
I am delighted that many people like this article (in comments here and additional feedback). More than a year has passed since its publication. I'm wondering whether the framework or tips have actually helped you or your colleagues?
Jeff Mask
Excellent article - all around. The more leaders lean in to the emotional needs of their teams, the more everyone can 10X their performance. I've seen a common stance occur: leaders avoid addressing negative emotions because "it will distract from getting to the real work/results." I have found that the irony is just the opposite: the more quickly we can address negative emotions the more quickly the team can unite, focus, and accomplish extraordinary results.
Yuvarajah Thaiagarajah
Very nicely written and I can resonate.  

In 2013, I joined a foreign acquired local company. For 17 years, the previous management practiced open communication and established a joint committee to solve employee issues. Within 3 years coming on board, the committee became defunct and the employees decided to form a union. 

Nothing is more worse than suppressing emotions and feelings that erode "trust". When employees are under-performing with negativity we can coach them, but when the fish is rotting at the head..... there is little hope.
Interesting article. Emotions run high in many work places. Managers need to design ways to handle employees emotions on a daily basis. it is very useful for managers to identify these situations and listen more to employees that are willing to express these thoughts.
Sean Williams
Outstanding work!  Negative emotions are as important as any other emotion. When they breed resistance, leaders need to DRAW OUT the resistance, not shut it down, dismiss it or otherwise choke it off. Ask questions that respect the person and demonstrate empathy. Empathy seems to be lacking in nearly all organizations -- no one can honestly imagine what it would be like to be the other person! 

At the heart of all of this is that everyone should be contributing to an environment rich in dialogue and discussion, where people's voices are heard and heeded.  That "Desired Environment" is a hallmark of the best places to work, and is repeatable. 

Communication isn't a panacea; your management and culture have to bring respect to the table. Communication - especially dialogue - CAN help organizations recover from trauma, provided leaders don't try to personally solve every problem. They should solve the hardest ones!
James Pereira
It's truly commendable that MIT has published an article on emotions in the workplace. Gone are the days when managers either suppressed or refused to acknowledged the existence of emotions at work.

As I read this article, one word kept jumping out - coaching. I guess a leader who is skilled at coaching will be able to bring out these negative emotions in an under performing employee.