Danger: emotions at work

Managers often dismiss the role of feelings but research suggests they should pay attention to the emotional climate at work and choose staff with emotional intelligence. Here are eight ways to create an emotionally healthy organisation.

Managers once left their emotions at home. Management was all about objectivity and recruits were chosen on the basis of qualifications and IQ. Feelings were considered to have no place within the corporate environment and no relevance to productivity.

However in recent years, research has cast new light on the role of emotions in organisations. The concept of emotional intelligence was first introduced in 1990 by two US academics, John Mayer and Peter Salovey, but brought to the public’s attention by former New York Times correspondent Daniel Goleman. Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ became a worldwide best seller, and has been a major influence in management consulting.

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence consists of four parts – firstly, awareness of our emotions and then the ability to manage them, both in terms of handling negative emotions and marshalling positive ones such as motivation. Thirdly we must have empathy with others’ feelings and, finally, put all these skills together to have effective relationships with others.

In one research project, untrained teams whose members had high emotional intelligence performed as well as trained teams whose members had low emotional intelligence. Neal Ashkanasy, Professor of Management at UQ Business School, says technical skills may be a pre-requisite to do the job, but emotional intelligence can make all the difference.

“If you have the technical skills you can do the work, but if you want to make it truly productive, or want to move into a managerial role, you need emotional intelligence,” he says. “Emotional intelligence helps leaders to articulate team goals and objectives, to instill enthusiasm in members, to encourage flexibility, and to establish cooperation, trust, and identity within their work teams.”

The good news is that emotional intelligence can be learned. Dr Ashkanasy says one company noticed a significant difference after arranging a series of workshops for its engineers. Just by making them aware of their own feelings and those of others, they were able to establish better relationships.

Emotional intelligence is only part of the equation, however. There is evidence to suggest that emotions actually play a critical role in decision-making and brain-damaged patients who lack emotion are unable to make decisions. Other research has looked at the importance of the ‘emotional climate’ in organisations, the effects of ‘emotional labour’ where employees are expected to be cheerful and disguise their true emotions, and the problems which can arise as a result of ‘emotional build-up’ following a series of negative events.

Professor Ashkanasy says managers should take note: “In a lot of organisations in Australia, the management dismiss emotions out of hand. However research suggests that they should pay attention to the emotional climate in their organisation. Companies also need to look beyond just technical competences when selecting staff and choose people on the basis of emotional intelligence too.”

Arising from his research with US colleague Professor Catherine Daus, Professor Ashkanasy provides the following eight tips on how managers can create an emotionally healthy organisation.

1. Assess the emotional impact of jobs – expectations such as ‘always smile’ may be unreasonable. If a job is extremely challenging, for example a nurse in a children’s cancer ward, think proactively of ways to create a buffer.

2. Set a good example – create a positive and friendly emotional climate by modeling such behavior yourself. Leaders should be as genuine as possible when expressing emotion, and honest in their communication. You must walk the tightrope between encouraging health expression and letting feelings run rampant.

3. Reward desired behavior – comments such as “I really appreciate your positive, upbeat attitude; it goes a long way toward making this a pleasant place to work” can have a powerful impact. Consider also including behaviors and expectations in staff reward schemes.

4. Select employees in part on their emotional attitude – ask questions at interview such as: “Tell me about a time when you had to change the emotional tone of a group of people. How did you accomplish this?” Call their referees and ask about the candidate’s emotional tone.

5. Train employees in emotional intelligence and healthy emotional expression – for example, how to find outlets for anger on the job and strategies to deal with emotional burn-out.

6. Change the corporate culture – if you are serious about establishing a positive emotional environment, why not include it in your company’s mission statement?

7. Redesign jobs where appropriate – for example by giving employees greater autonomy to deal with unhappy customers, which communicates trust and responsibility.

8. Deal with problem employees – negative emotions can be contagious. Handle problems much as you would with any other performance issue through a progressive process starting with training, establishing goals and a timeline for improvement. Where all else fails, dismiss them.

Last updated:
27 February 2019