Emotions cannot be ignored at work

For decades, managers believed it’s inappropriate to express strong emotion at work and have strived to make workplaces emotion-free zones. This point of view perceives emotions as hindering decision-making and performance.

Yet, business is fraught with emotions. Consider dealing with a boss who hasn’t responded to multiple emails, a demanding client who made another last-minute request or a team embroiled in conflict over how to proceed with a challenging task. The result is a range of emotional experiences from frustration to anxiety. What should managers do with these emotions? Should they try to shut them out?

Decades of research in psychology and business demonstrates that the answer is a resounding no. First, trying to ignore one’s emotions drains energy, leading to burnout and decreased performance. Emotions are meant to move us to action, and can actually enhance decision-making when used appropriately.

My research suggests that emotions, including negative ones, are functional, preparing us to take action to resolve pressing challenges. Negative emotions, in particular, can serve a valuable diagnostic function, signaling a problematic or difficult situation can and should be changed.

Here are some tips to improve and practice emotional intelligence at work:

Don’t ignore or suppress your emotions. Trying to suppress your emotions doesn’t work; it reduces energy and lowers job performance. Emotions are useful signposts. The next time you feel aggravated, angry or embarrassed, write down your ideas and thoughts. This could lead to a new idea or breakthrough in your current work.

The ability to regulate and modify emotional experience is critical. It’s not only important to recognize and label your negative emotional experiences, but also to channel this energy constructively. For example, instead of looking for someone to blame, reframe the situation as a learning opportunity or use the anger to find a solution. Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Furthermore, studies from business, psychology and physiology reveal that reframing anxiety as excitement can lead to better performance at tasks, including persuading others and solving problems.

Positive emotions can help you overcome challenges and obstacles. We all face obstacles to achieving our work goals. However, harnessing hope, optimism and compassion for others can provide the fuel to be persistent, whether coming up with new ideas to complete a task, designing a new process to overcome red tape or speaking up about an important issue.

I recently surveyed over 600 employees from health care, government, public service and IT organizations to see how they overcome work-related obstacles resulting from unresponsive or controlling supervisors. I found high levels of positive emotional experiences from working to benefit co-workers or the organization fueled these employees. Thus, positive emotions can propel employees to be proactive in situations where it may be needed most, such as when supervisors discourage initiative.

Conventional wisdom has long been that emotions don’t serve a useful purpose at work; research and general practice show that the opposite is true. The next time you experience emotion at work, harness it in a productive way.

R. David Lebel is an assistant professor of business administration at Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh. David is an award-winning researcher whose interests include speaking up and emotions at work. His teaching interests include organizational behavior, organizational change and communication at work. Prior to pursuing a Ph.D., he was a management consultant with Deloitte, providing strategy and operations expertise to public sector clients, and was an analyst for a large $15 billion privately held supply chain organization.