Managing emotions in the workplace

Emotions are central to achieving most work-related goals, and shape our wellbeing and performance.

Among some managers there are still perceptions that emotions are somehow contrary to success in the workplace, they get in the way of making good decisions, undermine productivity, and are essentially something you want to avoid. The perception is that emotions are irrational and can undermine our success at work.

I couldn’t agree less. Instead, I would argue that emotions are central to achieving most work-related goals. They can most definitely shape our wellbeing and performance, and likewise shape how creative and innovative we are.

So if we agree that emotions are central to achieving work goals, how can we influence them?

Shaping feelings

The focus of much previous research in this area has been on how we can manage and shape our feelings ourselves, what we can do personally to improve our performance and productivity. But is it possible to shape in a strategic way the feelings of other people around us in the workplace as well?

I would argue that you can, via a process known as interpersonal emotion regulation (IER). Over many years colleagues and I have been building a research programme in this area trying to explore its relevance to everyday life, looking at how and why people influence feelings of those around them on a daily basis. And from a large number of research studies where we have explored this process, the response from organisations has been overwhelmingly positive. This is something that really resonates with people.

Strategic approach

According to researchers of IER, there are four main ways in which we can influence the feelings of others. To explain, let’s take the example of a worker who is suffering from anxiety due to a high workload.

One way of approaching this issue is through a problem-focused approach to try to change the worker’s situation, which in turn should help to reduce their anxiety. So a manager might offer to simply reduce a colleague’s workload by offering to take on additional duties.

Another approach could be a cognitive approach, where instead of changing the situation, you try to change how somebody thinks about it. You can do this either by diverting attention away from the issue (e.g. telling jokes to distract the worker from their problems and make them feel happier) or by casting the situation in a different light (e.g. reframing the high workload as an opportunity to impress management).

A third approach is socio-affective, where the focus is on communicating validation and care within the relationship. You aren’t trying to change the situation or how the person thinks about it, you just want the person to feel supported. In the given example, the manager could empathise with the colleague’s stress and listens to their concerns.

A final option could be a response-focused approach, which seeks only to change the person’s outward expression of emotion, such as telling the colleague to try and calm down and not worry.

Which strategy is best depends on what you are trying to achieve. However our research has shown that, broadly speaking, strategies that involve problem solving, cognitive reframing, and socio-affective approaches tend to be most effective. By contrast, response-focused and cognitive diversion approaches can appear dismissive and are typically not well received. Coming across as authentically acting in the interests of those whose emotions you are trying to manage is another key factor that aids our effectiveness, whatever behaviours we use.

Remote working challenge

A key thread of our research is the importance of bonding and the fact that there are so many contexts in which forming better relationships with others in the workplace is really the key to having a better organisation.

This is particularly true if you are joining a new organisation, or are a leader of a new team where establishing new strong bonds with colleagues is really important. This is also critical in a very low trust context such as managing organisational change which is likely to meet high resistance.

Given this, the fact that so many of us have been working from home during lockdowns in response to Covid-19 poses a particular challenge. However I would argue that because remote working is hard, isolating, stressful and challenging, it makes IER even more important given we feel less connected with colleagues.

Less formal

The problem is that implementing IER strategies is so much more difficult right now. For those of us working remotely, all our communication is technologically mediated and more formalised. We are having less informal, spontaneous conversations which are normally the best opportunities to manage other people’s feelings.

For managers it is really important right now to carve out opportunities to be more spontaneous and informal to understand how others are feeling and protect their wellbeing. One simple example might be taking a couple of minutes out of your day to send an email to someone to see how they are, not in an intrusive way but in a genuine, supportive manner.

Another example might be to factor IER into the feedback we give people – both formal and informal – so that we include more praise and validation. In smaller meetings, spend a couple of minutes chatting informally and showing interest in others (just as you would whilst waiting for colleagues to filter into an in-person meeting in non-pandemic times).

With a lot of us feeling very distant from others there has actually never been a more pressing time to try and influence the feelings of other.

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