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Leveraging Negative Emotions at Work

No organization is immune to negative emotions because their employees are not immune to negative emotions. In addition to work, employees juggle families and other responsibilities that often can bleed over into one’s work life because emotions don’t come with an on or off switch. When the boundaries are crossed, the common reaction for managers is to ignore the negative emotions and instead try to cultivate positive emotions and muster enthusiasm by celebrating successes.


Cultivating positive emotions is a good tactic to have in a manager’s toolkit but there is equal value in recognizing the negative emotions that employees bring or experience at work and holding space for the negative emotions.


I recently heard a phrase that highlights this concept. “Rejection is just redirection.” Negative emotions and events can be opportunities to broaden a team’s outlook by providing constructive feedback. They can also be opportunities for managers and leaders to identify problems in the organization that can be solved. Emotions like anger and sadness are often surface emotions for deeper problems both in life and in organizations. Yet the most common practice for managers when negative emotions arise is to put a lid on the emotions by pressuring employees to conceal them. Rather than hearing the complaint and investigating the cause, managers are more likely to turn the employee over to the HR department.



And their reasons may seem valid. “I can’t spend all my time managing the complaint box” or “they (employees) should learn to leave those emotions at the door. There is no room for ‘Negative Nellies’ on my team.” or “here comes Janet again, I wonder what she’s got to complain about today.” This trend in management combined with the fact that most managers do not receive training in handling negative emotions effectively can lead to even more negative emotions arising as employees become more and more frustrated that they are not being heard.


Or, not being treated like human beings.


No one can sustain being “up” all the time. That’s not how our brains function. Like yin and yang, positive and negative emotions are two sides to the same coin.


So what can managers do?


First, as a manager, you have to learn to face negative emotions. And that often requires learning to make space for your own negative emotions. Rather than brushing aside the next time you feel sad or angry, keep a hold of that emotion. Why do you feel that way? What is causing it? What event triggered the emotion? Once you become better at sitting and identifying your own emotions, you can start to recognize an employee’s negative emotions.


Now it’s time to step up and respond to negative emotions as they arise in the workplace. As you get better at identifying them, you will start to notice them earlier and earlier. The best time to intervene is before the negative emotions snowballs. We all know the feeling, one bad thing starts your day and before you know it you’ve let it snowball and 10 seconds in the morning turns into 10 hours of a bad mood. Don’t let them snowball for your employees.


It’s easier than you think to catch and redirect negative emotions. Research shows that even small supportive gestures from managers can improve an employee’s ability to cope. Gestures as simple as frank optimism and confidence that the employee can manage the challenge paired with offers of additional support and resources can go a long way to easing an employee’s mind.


Managers who more effectively tune into their employees with simple questions like “How are you doing today?” get better and better about catching negative emotions early. Be careful to offer support though and not try to fix the problem for employees. You’ve probably experienced it before, you are frustrated about X and would just like to vent and well meaning person Y keeps breaking in with suggestions that only serve to frustrate you further. Help your employees by letting them lay out the situation for you and ask questions that help them see a different side or a bigger picture.


The most important thing to remember is negative emotions happen because life happens. But by acknowledging and holding space for negative emotions as managers, employees learn to acknowledge and hold space for negative emotions with each other. This leads to a more cohesive and adaptable team that can quickly navigate life events... like global pandemics.


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