Is There A Place for Feelings In The Workplace?

Feelings In The Workplace

Is there a place for feelings in the workplace? Has a misunderstanding of feelings brought more harm than good into our workplaces? Do we even know what feelings are? Do they bear advantages that managers and employees canleverage on? The first part of this discourse attempts to provide us an understanding of feelings in the workplace. From the book, Organisational Behaviour Real Research for Real Managers by Jone L. Pearce is presented an excerpt from the article Making Sense of Feelings at Work:

Why would managers need to worry about squishy stuff like feelings? After all, work is work. But ignoring feelings is impossible. Emotions like rage, jealousy and resentment can lead people to abandon all concern for calculating which actions are in their own best interest, making organisational reward systems useless. People also develop likes and dislikes that can be impervious to any contradictory information. Actions at work are driven as much by feeling as they are by rational calculations, and no attempt to understand what people do in organisation can ignore them. Nevertheless, as important as feelings are, many of us have developed a healthy trepidation about feelings at work. Feelings can be unpredictable, violent, irritating, and distracting. It is more than most of us can do to keep our own emotions from getting us into trouble at work, let alone trying to cope with others’ feelings. This leads to two extreme and equally unproductive reactions.

One extreme is to declare that all feelings should be banished from the workplace: demand a “professionalism” that requires we set our personal likes and dislikes aside. Good professional practice means we salute the uniform and not the person and flee the room at the first sign of a tear. This is exactly what the earliest scholar of modern organisations, Max Weber, advocated, “…the more bureaucracy is ‘dehumanized’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is the specific nature of bureaucracy and it is appraised as its special value.” Although no one has ever thought it possible to completely dehumanize organisations, it remains an ideal that drives policies in many organisations: objective examinations to select who will; be promoted, impersonal seniority rules for who is let go, commands to “keep it professional,” and the like. The opposite extreme is to spend inordinate time discussing and analyzing feelings. In this extreme ideal, every slight is explored for what it reveals about the other person’s deepest emotions. These advocates claim the expression of everyone’s feelings, thought and opinions should be received with deep respect and infinite patience.

Although organisations have survived using both of these extreme approaches to feelings at work, neither one is optimal. Impersonal professionalism, of course is an ideal that can never be achieved in practice. Feelings are always present. They are fundamental to who we are. As one illustration of their importance, many books have been written exploring the manipulation of emotion by history’s great leaders. Charismatic leaders explicitly influence and direct followers’ emotions in order to achieve extraordinary things. Those who try to manage without emotion will find they can achieve only a shallow and limited organisational performance. At the other extreme, open discussion of feelings at work is based on the assumption that this is the best way to prevent feelings from interfering with work. For good or ill, feelings cannot be tamed by discussion, and open discussion has its own costs in heightened emotional contagion, manipulation, and play acting. This extreme is no more a panacea than rigid impersonal professionalism.

Emotions are central to who we are and how we understand the world around us and cannot be either successfully suppressed or exorcised. Rather, we can only hope to understand what they are, how they arise and how they affect how organisations work. Feelings have a significant effect on individual employee’ job performance, on whether they stay or leave their jobs, and on the collaboration necessary to organisational performance, and so understanding them has immense practical value to managers.


The expression of feelings in organisations is a complicated issue. In the first place, what we are feeling at work is usually already clear to others, whether we talk about our feelings or not. Apparently, most of us are quite poor at disguising our emotions. AnatRafaeli and Robert Sutton have observed that customers know when service employees are unhappy in their jobs, and when customers perceive that service employees are unhappy, they themselves become less happy with the organisation’s services. The transparency of our emotions to others should not be surprising; we all pride ourselves in being able to read others’ emotions and moods. Throughout our lives, we read others’ and our own feelings and react to what we perceive in organisations and elsewhere. So should employees express their feelings at work? This question is meaningless because we are already expressing our feelings to others. The question is, “What do we know in particular about how these feelings affect the workplace”?

We know that in many circumstances, expression of employees’ feelings at work is seen as something that managers should manage. Because our emotions can be so visible to others, and so important to those observing them, managers in many organisations have required the expression of certain emotions while working. Through trial and error, those responsible for organisations have come to the conclusion that certain employees will be more effective when they visibly express particular emotions. So, debt collectors are trained to express anger as a way to induce debt re-payment, and airline flight attendants are expected to express calm and pleasure when working with passengers.

This is called emotional labour,or the job requirement to display particular emotions, whether actually feeling them or not. Much has been written about the psychological toll a constant demand to express positive emotions employees are not actually feeling can have on their health, and under some circumstances, on their quit rate. So, many jobs require employee expression of certain emotions because their expression is good for business. Formally requiring particular emotional displays is normal business practice, but it is one that is not quite acceptable, and certainly not as legitimate as the professional suppression of emotional display. This confusion (and insincerity) about the role of emotions does not help us to understand them. Here the research in psychology and organsational behaviour on feelings is reviewed for any possible clarity it can provide.

Defining Feelings.

Although we are all, familiar with emotions, in practice they can be difficult to define. But the different forms they take have differential organisational effects. So we can begin by distinguishing between emotions, moods, and temperament (or what we have been calling dispositions).

  • Emotions are short (lasting from half a second to five minutes) reactions to something in the environment. These are the familiar fear, joy, anger, sadness, and the like. Emotions play an important role in survival, providing us with information and helping to direct our attention to what is important.


  • Emotions should not be confused with moods, which are general, longer lasting summaries of how we are generally feeling at any point in time. Whereas emotions are high in intensity, moods usually are not so sharply experienced: they are the background feelings that we have throughout the day. Moods can be complex combinations of perceptions and emotions, but research on their effects in organisational settings had reliably grouped them into positive and negativemoods. Like emotions, moods also direct our attention. For example, people are likely to pay attention to information that matches their current mood. Those in negative moods are more likely to pay attention to negative performance feedback.


  • Temperaments or dispositions are stable traits that seem to be present at birth. So, for example someone may have an anxious temperament (neuroticism), but that does not mean that the person is always experiencing the emotion of anxiety. Similarly, someone dispositionally low in neuroticism might become anxious, say before an important job interview.

Influencing Others’ Feelings

Certainly, many believe that the management of emotions, moods and dispositions is important to organisational work. Those seeking to sell a product begin with a joke or a small gift because they can create more positive, and so more receptive, moods. Skilled interviewers begin by asking easy straightforward questions to increase interviewee comfort and confidence in answering questions because a comfortable interviewee will be more expansive and forthcoming. We all seek to manage our own and others emotions, although we may do so with little awareness of what we are doing and why.

In addition to trying to foster moods that we believe will help us achieve our goals, we also try to manage our own and others’ feelings at work simply because emotions and moods are contagious in a way that rational analysis is not. We know that managers’ moods affect their employees’ moods, and the reverse – that employees’ moods affect their managers’ moods. Our moods affect nearly all others we come into contact with, and their moods affect our own. This is emotional contagionand has long been recognised as a workplace tool.

This is why employees in direct contact with accused perpetrators, customers and clients are directed to display particular emotions. Police officers interrogating suspects’fake anger or sympathy to influence suspects’ own feelings, and salespeople have learned to display positive emotions that they hope will be contagious. Occupational training for many jobs involves teaching the craft of emotional display and the discipline of avoiding contagion from those displaying disadvantageous emotions. Novices practice using differing scenarios to help them build their skills in directed emotional contagion. For example, those who must work with others who may be distraught, such as police officers, flight attendants and negotiators, are trained in techniques to help them avoid catching others’ distress.

Even in settings without explicit professional emotional display requirements, people will informally, and sometimes unconsciously, seek to create and sustain desired emotions and moods via contagion. Those who perceive that another is anxious might try to calm or lighten that other’s mood, not out of altruism, but simply because they do not want to catch the other’s anxiety. Emotional contagion is why those who work together often develop distinctive department or team-level morale. Emotions and moods are contagious, and all tend to catch them from those we work alongside on a regular basis. Of course, the outcome of manipulation through directed emotional contagion is uncertain. It can be consciously resisted like all attempted manipulations: awareness of the manipulator’s intent and technique can undermine its effectiveness.

The prevalence of emotional contagion means that we are continuously communicating our emotions and moods to others, whether we realise it or not. If people are already expressing their feelings so clearly and so actively in organisations, what can it mean to say that people should discuss their feelings at work? Many do advocate more active discussion of feelings than is typically seen in the workplace. This could indicate a confusion of therapeutic discussion of emotions after a traumatic event (beneficial), with emotional display rules for day-in-day out work (various). Certainly, if such discussions are unusual in a particular organisation, attempts to make them happen run the risk of creating anxiety.

We do know that sharing intense emotions induces a strong emotional response in others in a wide variety of cultures. The contagiousness of such strong feelings can induce greater intimacy among the participants, but in the extreme, some more vulnerable participants may find such discussions unbearably distressing. Workplaces are not therapeutic environments, and many in those settings may be in direct competition for promotions or attractive assignments. In such settings, coercing open displays of thoughts and feelings can result in elaborately false games in which the sophisticated reveal (real or feigned) emotions, and the unsophisticated and emotionally vulnerable are put at personal risk. Evidently emotions have a place in the workplace and our understanding of how they work or how they affect us and others would help us immensely to channel these emotions towards eliciting great performance from individuals and teams. The actual question, I think we should explore is this, “Does employee happiness impact organisational performance”?