30 Mar 2017
Negative emotions in the workplace can have surprising positive effects, says LBS expert
Most of us, if asked, would opt for a harmonious office environment. Few of us regularly display anger or suspicion in the workplace, choosing instead to hide any negative feelings lest they damage our reputation or relationships. But, according to new research by a London Business School behavioural expert, too many firms have not counted the true cost of keeping the peace at work.
Michael Parke, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School, made the remarks in a London Business School podcast. Parke argues that firms are missing out on some surprising benefits by suppressing negative emotions at work.
“The usual preference is to display the positive side of our emotions,” says Parke. “But there are consequences. When someone can’t express their true emotion, it prevents them from being their authentic self and can lead to frustration which demotivates them. If politeness and a fake sense of happiness prevail, it can actually create greater social distance between colleagues.”
Negative emotions have certain benefits, says Parke. Anxiety, stress, frustration, anger can help signal and prioritise problems.
“A healthy sense of danger, worry or suspicion in small doses can keep people vigilant, particularly useful for organisations that regularly encounter risk, such as the police and security firms.”
Frustration can be helpful in an organisation that seeks to motivate change, and can translate into more candid feedback between colleagues.
“Honest expression of negative emotion can encourage creativity and innovation, improve work productivity and even boost growth through conflict,” says Parke. “Frustration signals to others that there is a problem, which can attract more resources, for instance, which can spur on innovation.”
But it doesn’t come easily. Parke says that the key is in managing negative emotions effectively, at both the individual level and organisational level. In order to do this, however, leaders need to work hard to foster a climate of openness and empower teams to be more honest.
“Leaders should try to create an authentic, experiential climate, whether it skews to the positive or negative side,” says Parke. “This requires a long-term commitment. They need to set the parameters for how and when people open up at work.
“Importantly, leaders should be ready to deal with these emotions when colleagues start opening up. Candid feedback sessions are a great opportunity to practice sharing authentic feelings,” explains Parke.
If leaders are willing to commit to the challenge of creating an effective and authentic emotional environment, the pay-off can be considerable. Harnessing both positive and negative emotions can significantly boost creativity and productivity.
Listen to the podcast in full.