WORK-LIFE BALANCE / AUG. 28, 2014
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Feeling Bad At Work Might Actually Be Alright

In a recent post I discussed the notion of a smile being powerful enough to make us feel better.  The post was based upon some research highlighting that this premise depends an awful lot on the context.  It found that faking a smile might actually make us feel worse.

Central to the desire to smile our way happy is the belief that negative emotions are always a bad thing.  It’s a dubious claim that has little in the way of merit behind it, as a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool highlights.

They were looking specifically at negative emotions in the workplace, and whether they may actually be of benefit to us.  The research suggests that things are far more complex than the simple heuristic of positive emotions equalling positive outcomes and negative emotions leading to negative ones.  The reality is much more context specific than all that.

When rage can be a good thing

Take anger as an example.  It’s clear that anger can have a destructive influence on the workplace, both on the person exhibiting the rage and those around them.  That isn’t always the case however, and showing anger can be very positive when the source of the anger is an injustive of some kind.  When ones moral standards have been violated, the anger this produces can be useful in rectifying the situation.

These kind of instances are often helped by a sense of anger and injustice, with this often preventing these kind of events from recurring or repeating themselves.  Similarly, if employees are always positive and cheery, this can often translate itself into a lack of candid feedback about the negative things that will inevitably occur in any workplace.

After all, groupthink is a very real threat to any collaborative organisation, and it’s crucial that people have the freedom, and the desire, to speak up and tell their colleagues what they’re thinking.  This can often be crucial to promoting team effectiveness.

Too much rage

Of course, as with most things, the key is to strike a balanace.  Anger is fine when channeled in the right way, but poorly directed and it can quickly escalate towards abusiveness.  Studies have shown that challenging circumstances at work can often result in those in power acting abusively towards those with little power of their own.

Another study highlighted how quickly such behaviour can escalate.  It showed that when a manager within a team began to abuse a fellow team mate, it quickly became normal behaviour within the group, and abusive behaviours would spread throughout the team.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that we should not throw the baby out with the bath water and assume that emotions are always a negative thing at work.  As the paper concludes.

"The findings of the studies published in this paper challenge the widely held assumption that in the workplace positive emotions generate or engender a positive outcome, and vice versa."

How does your workplace respond to supposedly negative emotions?

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