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3 actions to stop toxic emotions making the office a bad place to work

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People often see negative emotions, such as anger and frustration as inherently negative.

However, these occur naturally and they happen a lot especially in a highly stressful working environment.

Are negative emotions inherently dysfunctional though?

According to a recent study, they are not.

Negative emotions generally don’t last long and in some cases are even energising and a way of releasing or coping with stressful situations.

Researchers Tina Kiefer and Laurie Barclay found that it is not the occurrence of negative emotions per se that is important (everybody experiences them); it is how these emotions are experienced by the individual that makes it critical to understand the effect on the person’s performance. 

According to Kiefer and Barclay, for the effect of negative emotions to persist even after the initial flash of those emotions is gone, different events must happen separately, but all against the same background to which every event contributes. This emotional background is called toxic emotional experiences (TEEs).

Kiefer and Barclay recruited 876 participants online to answer a self-report looking at their attitude towards their respective organisations, their own performance and their psychological health. 

The researchers theorised that the persistent effect of negative emotions can be predicted by how individuals experience these emotions, using the TEEs as a component of their model of analysis. The TEEs were broken down into factors like the event being recurring, the person’s feeling of disconnection from others and the event being draining.

According to the results, the participants’ work performance was affected by negative emotions being "recurring” as well as their "level of disconnection” with others in the team. On the other hand, psychological health was affected by an emotion being "recurrent” and "draining,” while their attitude towards the organisation was affected by the negative emotions being "recurring.”

The researchers conducted a second study where they recruited 136 participants from a single organisation to examine the relationship between negative emotions and helping behaviours, like contributing ideas or doing more work than asked.

Results show that contrary to expectations, there is a higher willingness to show helping behaviours when negative emotions are felt. If analysed with TEEs, however, the results show that negative behaviours can become toxic when they are recurring and draining, which make helping behaviours less likely to happen. The individuals will do what they need to do at work, but will volunteer nothing more.

The EBW View 

Most good managers attempt to prevent negative events from happening and reduce the consequences of negative emotions on their team members.

However, this research highlights the importance of looking out for patterns of recurring negative issues that team members experience.

Even if they are considered "low-level problems”, if these negative emotions occur again and again, the research shows they chip away at the individual’s defences and contribute not only to low performance, but also to a host of other negative consequences in their health and attitude/motivation towards the organisation.

The easiest way for managers to prevent negative emotions from having persistent consequences on the team members, is to focus on three factors:

  1. Prevention (prevent the occurrence of negative events  - stop thinking about events as singular, but look at negative events in the context of patterns of events and how they might be experienced by team members).

  2. Intervention (once managers identify the persons showing toxicity, be understanding and show appropriate compassion or empathy).

  3. Restoration/recovery (where team members can be helped to develop the habit of positivity and letting go of toxicity).

Like a lot of things in life these strategies are easy to say but harder to implement, especially in a high pressure work situation. However, if managers focus on developing their Business EQ they will find it easier to effectively identify and address negative emotions at work and also effectively manage toxic emotional experiences (TEEs) that impact on performance.


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