The art of managing emotions at the workplace

Last Updated 29 March 2011, 11:39 IST

Life, on a day to day basis, is a sequence of emotional states: hope, disappointment, irritation, anger, affection, envy, pride, embarrassment, joy, sadness and many more. We know intuitively that these states express deep.

Emotions are physical manifestations of mental feelings. The churning in the mind gives rise to physical reactions. Emotions cloud impartiality, discretion, analytical ability and the real issues. If one gets involved in an issue or matter, he gets emotional. He develops an attachment towards the issue at hand. By developing an attachment, he takes sides. He comes to some pre-conceived conclusions, without a logical or scientific thinking.

Workplaces are like the weather and the employees are weathercocks where the ambiance will have emotional temperatures. There can be a positive high energy current circulating or a foggy obscurity where people lumber through their day or there can be an undercurrent of anger, in which people are impatient and irritated with each other. This is because emotions are catching the people and infected with the same flu; they can all grasp the same emotion creating a positive temperature or a sub-zero one.

Nothing affects employee morale more insidiously than persistent workplace negativity. Their bad moods drag others also into it. The negativity contaminates and engages every one into “emotional contagion” which saps the energy of an organisation and diverts critical attention from work and performance. Negativity occurs in the attitude, outlook, and talk of one department member, or in a crescendo of voices responding to a workplace decision or event.

As a matter of fact, people are not isolated ‘emotional islands’. Rather, they bring in all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions which influence others. Everybody brings their emotions to work. And employees’ emotions are integral to what happens in an organisation.

Feelings, which drive performance and behaviour can be briefly categorised into three types: 

*Discrete, short-lived emotions, such as joy, anger, fear and disgust.

* Moods, which are long-lasting feelings and not necessarily tied to a particular cause. A person is in a cheerful mood, for instance, or feeling down.

* Dispositional, or personality, traits, which define a person’s overall approach to life.

One can always be cheerful or can always be looking at the negativity.

All these are contagious, and emotions need not be grand and obvious to have an impact. Subtle display of emotion, such as a quick frown, can have an effect as well. Let us suppose, your boss will generally be in a very good humour, one day when you see him, his eyes flash at you. Even though they don’t glare at you for the rest of the day, his eyes have enunciated some valuable information that is going to have you concerned and worried and off centre for the rest of the day. You may not think you are showing emotion, but there is every possibility that you will let your emotions experienced by others through your facial expression or body language. Emotions are very, very sensitive; we don’t even realise how they influence our thoughts and behaviours.               

Usually the awareness of it hovers just below the surface. We are aware that some people make us feel optimistic and ready to take on the world while others seem to drain the life out. If you spend a few hours with them, you feel like taking a nap or brace yourself with a strong injection of adrenaline. However, we rarely clearly articulate our susceptibility to catching each other’s moods. By attuning oneself to the emotional contagion that affects the emotional temperature in the workplace, one can help to keep the ambiance in the positive range and raise the workplace performance.

Positive people cognitively process more efficiently and more appropriately. If one is in a negative mood, a fair amount of processing goes to that mood. On the contrary, a positive mood opens up to taking in information and handles it effectively. For which one should radiate only positive emotions to elevate the overall workplace temperature and facilitate performance and career. People want to work with high performers who nurture the subordinates and foster them, off course not those who ridicule and disdain.

Significantly, the supervisors should be like a beacon of positive emotions, as the subordinates, working under them would have a great impact. Failing which, not only the performance will mar, the ambiance will tarnish and the tranquility blighted. Workplaces, seethes with negativity and hostility, no matter where the bad vibes comes from, it is supervisors responsibility, to help make the atmosphere less negative and more positive, productive, stress-free and supportive.

Suppose the supervisor simulate the worries and anxiousness, the subordinates working under them catches the vibes of the supervisors’ negative connotation and work with less effectiveness. Consequentially the worries, anxiety of the supervisors will shoot-up, and the subordinates working under them will become more concerned and debilitated. The result of which performance deteriorates, the ‘temperature spiral’ descends and will be difficult to impede.  

A good supervisor is one who consciously put on a mask to hide and suppress all his qualms to keep the emotional temperature at his office in the positive range. As an initiative step, the supervisor goes to employees’ desks, greets them warmly, inquire their well-being. The positive energy he adds to the workplace is contagious. He can feel it when he walks through the door. To keep the emotional temperature at the workplace on the positive side add constructive energy to the emotional soup and assist the subordinates to know how to get rid of negative emotions when they catch it.

The facial expressions and the body language are very strong tools. Psychologists have found that by changing the facial expression and body language, one can actually change the moods. It is unto oneself to be sad by hunching the shoulders and slumping in the chair or to pick up the mood by sitting up and smiling.  

Smile, of course, is a very good contrivance. Smile and see how it affects the mood. Initially, it feels like you have just been to the dentist and your mouth is still numb from the Novocain, but if you keep at it, you will soon find your spirits lifting. Accordingly, change the body language; lift the head and shoulders to get ride of the feelings of inadequacy that you have caught from a discouraged fellow worker.

 Similarly, if you have just absorbed a dose of anxiety, breathe in slowly, deeply to feel relaxed that will help to diffuse the anxiety. Actors use these techniques all the time to help them genuinely feel the emotions of the characters that they are portraying. These techniques used to protect oneself from other people’s negative emotions. The reason to catch other people’s emotions is that a person unconsciously influences/synchronises his facial expressions and physical postures with others when they are around. As a result, they not only start modeling their facial expressions and body postures but also start feeling the same way that they do. If one is unhappy or angry, soon the other also feels unhappy and angry. By consciously stopping ourselves from engaging in this process, we can prevent ourselves from catching their negative emotions.

Just being aware of emotional contagion and how it affects, gives a powerful tool that can be used to elevate the emotional temperature at workplace. By keeping, ones own mood up/high and avoid being infected with the negative emotions that are prevailing; one can raise the performance levels at the workplace and make the place where everyone loves to work.

Whatever the cause of the workplace negativity, as a supervisor, address/face the issues. Otherwise, like a seemingly dormant volcano, they will boil beneath the surface, and periodically bubble up and overflow to cause fresh damage. And, of course, no one invite problem.

(Published 29 March 2011, 11:33 IST)

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