Don’t Hide From Negative Emotions in the Workplace

You would think that seeing negative emotions in the workplace would always be a bad thing because they’re, you know, negative. But that’s not necessarily the case.

For managers or supervisors, negative emotions can provide important information about what’s going on with your team members or even yourself. Negative emotions become a problem only when they go unaddressed, experts say.

“When managers fail to notice or respond to negative emotions, they subsequently encounter increases in rifts, resentment, and dissatisfaction among employees,” writes Christine M. Pearson in an article for Sloan Management Review. Pearson is a professor of global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University in Glendale, Arizona.

And here’s the scary part, according to their study: When someone’s negativity goes unaddressed, their co-workers will begin mirroring it unconsciously, even mimicking facial expressions and body posture. Yikes.

Here are some ideas about how to respond when confronted with negative emotions.

Focus on Cause, Not Effect

If negative emotions make us uncomfortable, it’s tempting to respond by trying to mitigate or even shut down that negativity. But if we do that, we might miss out on some important insights.

In some cases, people acting out are responding to a problem that they are not comfortable naming. For example, if you try to get at the root of employee grumbling, you “may discover exploitations of management power,” Pearson writes. Or you might find out that employees are feeling blue because they’ve heard rumors about a reorganization or terminations.

Bottom line? If you notice employees who are feeling troubled, don’t avoid them – seek them out. You might not like what you learn, but at least you know how things stand.

Act Sooner, Not Later

And here’s the thing: You need to seek them out as early as possible, rather than allowing trouble to brew.

“You will be in a much better position to prevent an outburst by avoiding the boiling point,” writes Angela Civitella, a business leadership coach, in an article for HRMorning.

Of course, your goal is not just to identify and address the root problem but also to help that employee regain equilibrium. In particular, you don’t want to make an employee feel bad for feeling bad.

“The key is to deal with workplace emotions swiftly, but without making the other person feel attacked or threatened,” Civitella writes. “Be clear about what is being criticized and focus on the outcome, not the process of resolving the issue.”

Keep Your Composure

If a situation reaches the boiling point and an employee has an outburst, it’s important not to feed that negativity with negativity of our own, no matter how uncomfortable and anxious we might feel.

The American Management Association, which offers management development to individuals and organizations, offers the following tips for keeping calm and focused:

  • Monitor your physical response. Breathe slowly, and consciously relax areas of your body that are tense.
  • If your own emotions begin rising, think cause not effect: What thoughts triggered you? Name them.
  • Maintain direct eye contact, but don’t stare.
  • As appropriate, disagree promptly and unemotionally.
  • If dealing with someone who is angry, remember that anger often covers up another feeling, such as shame or anxiety. Put your empathy to work.
  • Don’t react too quickly. Determine first if your instinctive response will be the most productive.

Be Honest About Your Own Emotions

Here’s another thing you can do to help employees deal with their negative emotions: Be honest about your own.

While you must be careful about what you say (e.g., don’t badmouth upper management or complain about other employees), it’s OK to admit that you are feeling stressed or frustrated. It might even be wise.

If you try to hide your negative emotions, you are not likely to succeed, writes Yolanda Lau, a business executive, in an article for “Faking positive emotions can only fool people for short periods of time, but your true feelings will eventually leak out,” she writes.

If those feelings leak out without being addressed, employees are likely to begin mirroring those negative emotions without even realizing it. Worse yet, such inauthenticity can undermine their trust in us, Pearson writes.

None of this is easy. But it’s all important.

If you’re looking for more resources to help you take the next step in your career, be sure to check out the NextGen Government Virtual Training Summit. We’ll host two, free virtual summits this year and both will be focused on providing public servants with everything you need to advance your career.

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