February 08, 2021

Emotions at Work

Emotions at Work

Why should we make space for emotions at work? We all have them. But what value do they bring to the workplace? 

According to Deanna Geddes, associate dean of graduate programs and professor of Human Resource Management, emotions contain a lot of information, if we’re willing and able to listen. Up, down and throughout organizations, employees and managers can benefit from expressing their feelings, from raising morale to higher productivity. But there are challenges to doing so, including cultural norms, gender differences in expressing emotion and fear of retaliation. 

In this episode of Catalyst, we talk about the benefits of expressing our emotions at work, how managers can make space for both their own and their employees’ emotional expression, and what the difference is between anger and aggression. Plus, Deanna shares a four-step mantra for managing your own anger at work and concrete ways to help your employees’ express theirs. 

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business about the pivotal moments that shape business and the global economy. We interview experts and dig deep into today’s most pressing issues. Season two will answer questions like: How will COVID-19 impact my financial future? Why hasn’t the #MeToo movement reached the professional sports industry? And what makes a leader credible? We explore these questions so you can spark change in your work. Episodes are timely, provocative and designed to help you solve today’s biggest challenges. Subscribe today. 


Full Episode Transcript

Host:  Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University Fox School of Business. I’m your host Tiffany Sumner. Do you express your real honest emotions at work or are you cautious in how you display your feelings?

Today I’m joined by Deanna Geddes, associate dean of graduate programs and professor of Human Resource Management at the Fox School. Deanna is an expert on expressing emotions in the workplace, especially anger. We talked about what emotions tell us and the ways that self expression benefits both managers and organizations. We discussed the difference between anger and aggression, how managers can lead by example [00:01:00] and what to do when someone shares their anger with you. Plus, Deanna shares concrete steps about managing emotions and helping your employees express theirs.

Hi Deanna, thank you for joining me.

Deanna:  Hello, pleasure to be here.

Host: So, you have done extensive research on expressing emotion in the workplace. Why is there a stigma around expressing emotions in the workplace?

Deanna: People often believe that, in order to be a professional or to be seen as professional at work, you must show little or no emotion. So, as a consequence, they kind of put on a very neutral or a slightly pleasant face all the time. But we do know that there [00:02:00] are cultural norms that reinforce “appropriate” or what we would call even “ideal” emotions expressed in different situations. So, for instance we are expected to show contrition in front of a judge or happiness for a friend’s success. We will express anger or maybe we’ll allow anger at policies that discriminate or are unfair.

 Host: How can embracing emotions be useful?

Deanna: Great question. Emotions are information to us. They prompt us to act—to either go toward or away from something or someone they let us. If we share them, others know what’s meaningful to us, what’s important, what’s scary, what’s upsetting, what’s exhilarating. Research in this area, workplace emotion, has truly exploded in the last 20 years and we’ve learned so much about how important emotions are in [00:03:00] understanding our personal as well as our professional lives. Decisions, embracing emotions, is really just embracing useful information that helps you identify what’s important to you and how is this meaningful. If you choose to let others know what’s happening inside, then you can have a more meaningful interaction with them. I’ll give you a quick example of this: I particularly study workplace anger. So often, at work, we hide our anger—when someone makes us upset, or have done something that offends us—we often will hide that anger because of this belief that we need to be professional, or whatever. Most of us do not go around hoping we offend people. Nevertheless, we regularly offend people and we don’t even know it. So often, we’re not given the opportunity to make amends or explain ourselves further unless the other person who got upset [00:04:00] lets us know, you know, ‘when you said that that made me angry can we talk about this some more?’ Most of the time, we never know that we’ve upset somebody. It can cause a lot of riffs in relationships, personal and professional. If only we would have learned that we had said something offensive, we could have made amends.

 Host: Yeah, it seems so simple and yet so profound.

Deanna: We tend to—especially women—women typically are not rewarded for expressing anger at work whereas men are. Anger is seen as a masculine emotion. It is seen as a status emotion, and so, when men express anger at work it can even elevate their status, but if women express anger at work in a typical “intense” way, it actually can lower their effectiveness or credibility [00:05:00]. So we have these interesting gender differences with what’s acceptable anger expression at work.

 Host: So, how can we widen what’s acceptable in regards to expressing workplace emotion?

Deanna: So, I have a model of emotion in the workplace called ‘The Dual Threshold Model’ and it has two thresholds to explain any sort of social environment. So it could be talking to a friend, it could be running a meeting, it could even be about different countries that can be used to explain what we would consider acceptable emotion expression and unacceptable emotion expression.

So, the two thresholds are inexpression thresholds. So most of the time, we hide a lot of our emotions. We hide our fears, we hide our content, we hide sometimes, even our joy if we think that we are too happy about something. We call that suppressed emotions, which means [00:06:00] we really haven’t crossed the expression threshold. We have a lot of emotions inside that we never share, right? But then you can share that emotion and you will have crossed that expression threshold.

Remember, there are two thresholds: what is the impropriety threshold? There is space between the expression threshold and the impropriety threshold, and in that space between, is where all the good things happen with emotional expression. You’ve let other people know how you feel, but you’ve done it in a manner that people find acceptable. So if you cross the impropriety threshold, though, we would call that a deviant emotion. It’s what we would call the emotion between the two thresholds. When motion or anger is expressed in a manner that people find acceptable or appropriate, they’re not offended by it. But if you cross at the second threshold, at the impropriety threshold, we combat deviant expression or deviant emotion because it deviates  [00:07:00] from acceptable norms. Everyone has their own level of what they consider acceptable.

Let me give you an example of anger again because that’s my focus. If the expression and impropriety thresholds are very close together, so that merely expressing anger is appropriate. That describes many of our service workers, for instance. You can say take the locker room of a professional football team, and these thresholds are way farther apart and you can scream and yell and cuss and hit and no one’s going to get—you’re not going to get in trouble for it, right? So the placement of these thresholds really reflect cultural norms.

In some cultures, you have very little room to express emotion. Then, in other cultures, you have lots of room to express emotion. It’s the same thing in relationships, [00:08:00] and it’s the same thing in countries. So the dual threshold of emotions is a handy tool to kind of talk about what we hide away, what do we suppress, what can we express and how can we express it in a manner that is found acceptable? And then, what is considered unacceptable, what is considered inappropriate?

The goal, of course, is to open up that space sufficiently so that people can express honest emotion without getting in trouble and we can have these you know useful dialogues to help resolve our differences and to learn more about each other and what’s going on inside.

Host: I know that your research also talks about the distinction between anger and aggression. Can you talk to us a little bit about what the distinction is?

Deanna: It’s a very important distinction. Anger is an internal feeling, right? So it’s basically an emotional reaction to a social norm violation. Somebody did something we considered absolutely inappropriate. [00:09:00] Aggression is behavior that is intending to harm another, so aggression and anger are very different phenomena, but people often equate them. They’re very different. While 90% of aggression begins with anger, only 10% of anger ever turns into aggression. That’s a very important distinction.

Host: Right, and so your research is making the case for a healthy way to express emotions at work but not aggression.

Deanna: A healthy way to express anger without aggression. When anger morphs into aggression it’s no longer anger and there’s no real benefit to it. Anger is not aggression, and anger is an emotional response to a social norm violation. So someone has done something that has offended you or hurt you or prevented you from doing what you want to do.

Surprisingly, people equate anger with hostility and aggression and abuse. So, imagine someone sitting on the curb and they’re clearly angry. If you think that person is aggressive or hostile, you will stay away from them. You will make a wide berth, right? But if you see that person is feeling pain and suffering because of what someone else has done to them, you’re much more likely to go up to them and offer to help. So it’s a completely different mindset—if you think anger is aggression, which it is not, then if you see it as a form of pain and suffering.

Host: Let’s focus on disagreeing with someone. If that disagreement is expressed in a way that’s actually productive, it can be healthy and it could also lead to a positive outcome.

Deanna: Exactly. So let me give you a couple examples. If I disagree with what you say, that basically indicates [00:11:00] to you that we have differences of opinion, so we could use the dual threshold model. I could hide my opinion, feeling that if I tell you how I really feel, you will be unhappy with me or it might damage our relationship. Or I can cross that expression threshold and say, you know, that I have a different opinion and this is how I think about this but I really appreciate knowing how you feel about this as well. Usually, that type of exchange would not go into the inappropriate but if you come into a conversation where it where you have a disagreement with someone and say you’re a jerk, you’re an idiot, you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about, according to that other person, you’ve crossed the line. You cross that impropriety line.

The interesting thing about the dual threshold model, too, is you as the speaker, as the person feeling any emotion, you set where that line is [00:12:00] for the expression threshold. But it’s the other person who sets where the line is for the impropriety. So you may feel that, oh, I find out how I’m so sorry I shouldn’t have been so short with you and I just was very upset about what we had just discussed. The other person will be saying, oh no, I totally understand that’s totally acceptable, right? So what they’ve done is, they’ve opened up that space between thresholds where you can have conversation and resolve your differences. So anger, in a weird way, is a form of voice. Just voicing discontent can be a form of employee voice where you express your disagreement with management and good managers, smart managers, are thrilled when they find out that people don’t agree with them or that they’re mad at them. [00:13:00] If they don’t find out about it, trust me, people are expressing that sentiment to other people in the organization. So, it’s better to let people have that space to express themselves. Honestly, and I tell this to my MBA students all the time, if you have an employee who’s upset who comes to you, or even a colleague who’s upset and has a disagreement with what you have proposed or what you said, they’re coming to you to let you know about that, is a sign of faith. It’s saying that they trust you, that if you knew this information you might be able to do something different.

Host: As a manager you want to have people that can be honest with you because ultimately if that trust is there, they have your best interest at heart and the organizations best interest at heart.

Deanna: I agree with you on that, and there is one more strategy I typically recommend especially to women managers because, as I mentioned, there are different standards for [00:14:00] women expressing, for instance, anger at work and men expressing anger at work—in the consequences for it. I often tell women managers to have a friendly but frank sit down with your staff and say, listen, I’m a friendly person. I’m easy to get along with and I will do everything I can to work well with everybody here. Once in a while, though, I’m going to get mad. Someone’s going to do something that they shouldn’t have done. It’s going to make me upset and I’m just going to let you know about that but, trust me, it is nothing personal. So most of the time, I’m going to be this friendly person to work with. But once in a while, I’m going to get mad and I’m going to allow you that same opportunity, because we probably will do things that annoy each other in the next several months. That technique is called pre-cueing and it’s just letting people know in advance that [00:15:00] you might react differently than you are right now and it’s not always going to be smiles and everything is okay.

Host: I love that piece of advice and I’m going to immediately Implement that into my management style. Effective immediately, for sure. I do feel, as a woman, I don’t have the right to be angry at the workplace for it would damage any type of credibility I have with my team or with leadership. But that’s really not realistic, especially if you are in a high-stress job like many of us are.

Deanna: Absolutely. Our emotions are really just information about how we are experiencing our environment, and so we can draw a lot of useful information from our emotions and if we’re willing to share them others can too.

Host: And I’m sort of curious [00:16:00] for managers and for leaders, what do you think the benefits of doing that are? Of opening up and being more vulnerable, and allowing the space for it. How does that really help a climate of an organization or the organization in any capacity?

Deanna: So, some of my research shows that if you allow more space for the honest expression of emotion, you push those thresholds apart from each other and open up that space between. You get tremendous value in your relationship development and also for organizational exchanges and productivity. It’s when can you reduce that space for your employees that you tend to have more morale issues and lower productivity. [00:17:00] So it was actually a surprising finding in one of my studies that even when people did cross the impropriety line—really went too far and they were probably going to get reprimanded for it—at least the manager knew something was upsetting them and actually what they were upset about. As a result, management could do something about it. When you suppress your anger, your fears, your sadness and no one knows about it, then they’re not able to make changes in policy or changes in practices that might make all the difference. Or, minimally, they can at least explain themselves better. So if you were initially feeling a policy was unfair, if you learned a little bit more about it because you know your manager was willing to talk to you about it and explain their logic, then your anger can be dissipated.

Host: So, to summarize: what are some specific actions we can take when either having emotions or facing [00:18:00] others emotions in the workplace?

Deanna: There are four things that you can do when we feel angry. It’s a mantra: slow it down, let it die, talk it out or give it up. Those are just kind of general rules that I tell people: to slow it down, reduce the intensity, take your time, let it die if it’s a little issue, don’t worry about it. Talk it out, that’s where the benefit can come from. Really having some useful conversations when things are not going in a manner that you think they should and then give it up, maybe involve somebody besides yourself to help resolve the issue. The other thing that I recommend to people, and this is really on how we respond to anger. Here’s how observers of anger can benefit from rethinking their interpersonal [00:19:00] or organizational anger episodes. Number one responds with interest and concern: be curious not furious, think of anger not as hostility but as pain and suffering. You’ve done something that really has hurt them and made them upset. Number two, listen carefully, be quiet. Don’t talk over them, just listen. Number three, ask what you can do to help. Be compassionate, apologetic if necessary, give them information as to why you did what you did. Give an explanation that may resolve the issues, simply by letting them know what your thoughts were. Thank them for sharing their feelings. Be grateful and then, finally, do everything you can to provide what they need to be as responsive as you possibly can be.

Host: Thank you, Deanna, for sharing your insight into how emotions impact the workplace. As humans, we all have emotions. At work, [00:20:00] our emotions can signal so much. Managers should pay attention to how their employees are feeling and why they are feeling that way. An organization that encourages employees to express their emotions in a healthy way will reap the benefits from higher morale and productivity to more faith in leadership. Keep Deanna’s mantra in mind when you’re feeling emotional at work. Slow it down, let it go, talk it out or give it up and when your employees are feeling angry, open up a safe space for expression by being curious, listening carefully, and staying compassionate. We all react to situations differently, but thanks to Deanna and her research hopefully now we can harness those feelings to create more productive outcomes. Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web  [00:21:00] at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by MilkStreet Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt, and Stephen Orbanek, and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.