Managing emotions in the workplace

People are not isolated emotional islands, so positive people tend to do better in the workplace.

You know the type: coworkers who never have anything positive to say, whether at the weekly staff meeting or in the canteen queue. They suck energy from brainstorming sessions with a few choice comments and their bad mood frequently puts other people into one as well.

Their negativity can even contaminate good news, says Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at Wharton business school. “We engage in emotional contagion,” she says. “Emotions travel from person to person like a virus.”

Professor Barsade is the co-author, with Donald Gibson of Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University, of a paper called Why Does Affect Matter in Organisations? The answer: employees’ moods, emotions and overall dispositions have an impact on job performance, decision making, creativity, turnover, teamwork, negotiations and leadership.

Affect matters because people are not isolated emotional islands. Rather, they bring all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions influence others.

“Everyone brings their emotions to work,” Professor Barsade says. “You bring your brain to work. You bring your emotions to work. Feelings drive performance. They drive behaviour and other feelings. Think of people as emotion conductors.”

Emotions don’t have to be grand and obvious to have an impact. Subtle displays of emotion such as a quick frown can have an effect as well. For example, imagine that your boss is generally good-tempered, but you see him in a meeting and his eyes flash at you. Even if he doesn’t glare at you for the rest of the meeting, his eyes have conveyed information that is going to leave you concerned for the rest of the meeting, Professor Barsade says.

Positive people tend to do better in the workplace, but this isn’t simply because people like them more than naysayers; positive people think more efficiently and more appropriately. “If you’re in a negative mood, a fair amount of processing is going into that mood. When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more open to taking in information and handling it effectively.”

While you can’t necessarily change your coworkers, you can take steps to avoid catching a negative mood. For example, before you attend meetings, tell yourself that you are not going to be bothered by the person who shoots down everyone’s ideas, or that you are not going to let that person become the focus of your attention.

And take extra care when using e-mail: messages can easily be misunderstood because they are devoid of facial expressions, intonation and body language, which are used to convey emotions.

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Meredith Weisser

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