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While we tend to assume positive emotions are more desirable, negative emotions serve a purpose.
Workplace Psychology | Peer-Reviewed Research

The Good, The Bad And The Ambivalent

Throw Out Assumptions To Better Understand The Impact Of Emotions On The Workplace

Based on research by Jennifer M. George (Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management)

Throw Out Assumptions To Better Understand The Impact Of Emotions On The Workplace

  • Previous studies of affect (emotion and mood) in the workplace have assumed that positive affect is inherently good and negative affect inherently bad.
  • Previous research indicates that positive and negative affect are likely to interact in complicated ways.
  • Rather than considering each separately, organizations should take a dual approach to evaluating the impact of positive and negative affect.

"You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative...." So the song goes, but what if we've been looking at things the wrong way? After all, both positive and negative emotions are naturally occurring responses to environmental stimuli.

Jennifer M. George, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management at Rice Business, evaluated the existing literature on affect in the workplace and hypothesized that it is more effective to study the combined impact of positive and negative affect, rather than examining them independently.

George started by looking at the role of emotions, defined as intense, short-lived feelings automatically triggered by stimuli.

While we tend to assume positive emotions are more desirable — after all, they’re more pleasant to experience — negative emotions serve a purpose. Take fear, for example. Fear is the body's way of signaling the presence of a threat in the environment. This may have begun as an evolutionary defense mechanism, but it's still relevant in the corporate world.

For an individual, understanding an emotion’s source can spur useful change (fear of layoffs can lead to proactive planning). For a group, spotting prevalent emotions can lead to constructive actions (employee anger could indicate unfairness in the organization). In either case, ignoring negative emotion can squander a chance to address a real problem.

George also notes that emotions often cannot be neatly divided into positive and negative. For example, working on a challenging project can induce both enthusiasm (e.g., when significant progress is achieved) and stress (e.g., when unexpected setbacks occur). In fact, the types of work activities that are likely to lead to strong positive emotions are also most likely to lead to negative ones, because the stakes are higher.

At the organizational level, even positive change can leave employees feeling unmoored and vulnerable to unexpected occurrences. At the interpersonal level, a worker may feel happy when a colleague helps him out, and angry when he perceives a coworker undermining him. She can also feel ambivalence — such as when a close friend receives a promotion she thought she deserved herself.

Another argument for a dual approach to affect comes from what researchers call the positivity offset and the negativity bias. The positivity offset is the tendency to have a slight positive emotional state when no stimuli are present. This suggests that people in a neutral setting will be more inclined to approach than avoid, leading to exploration and learning. The negativity bias refers to our tendency to give more attention to negative information and events. These two natural inclinations work together to encourage curiosity and discovery while also protecting us from potentially harmful situations. The effects of positive affect over a time period will vary depending on the extent to which negative affect is experienced over that time period (and vice versa).

Finally, George focuses on the role of moods: less intense and longer lasting affective states that aren't tied to any particular stimulus. A mood may not interrupt thought processes the way that a strong emotion does, but it can color workers’ day-to-day life in a profound way. Positive moods can signal that all is well and encourage thought processes that are less systematic and more expansive. Negative moods warn that our situation is problematic and encourage cautious, analytical thinking. Both are obviously valuable in an organization, as they encourage employees to approach problems from multiple perspectives.

Johnny Mercer may have told us not to mess with Mister In-Between. But as George's research shows, both positive and negative affect have value. By looking at them together, we can reach a better understanding of how mood and emotion influence the workplace.

Jennifer M. George is the Mary Gibbs Jones Emeritus Professor of Management in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

To learn more, please see: George, J. (2011). Dual tuning: A minimum condition for understanding affect in organizations? Organizational Psychology Review, 1(2), 147-164.

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