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.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.
For more than two decades, I have studied workplace circumstances that evoke negative emotions.