organizations millions of dollars in lost productivity,
disengagement, and dissipated effectiveness.
In a study of 137 managers enrolled in an executive MBA program, Christine Porath of Georgetown
University and I found that negative emotions led
them to displace bad feelings onto their organizations, either by decreasing their effort or time at work,
lowering their performance or quality standards, or
eroding their commitment to their organizations. 6
Employees who harbor negative sentiments lose
gusto and displace their own negative emotional reactions on subordinates, colleagues, bosses, and
outsiders. They also find ways to stay clear of coworkers and circumstances that they associate with their
negative feelings, which can short-circuit communication lines and clog resource access. 7 Consider these
pricey consequences as incentives to face, rather than
avoid, darker workplace emotions.
Look yourself in the mirror. If you lack emotional self-awareness, your own concerns will
inhibit your abilities and color the emotions that
you tune into. 8 Next time your own negative emotions are rising, reflect. Recognize and harness your
own emotional triggers. Which conditions or individuals provoke emotional reactions from you?
Note circumstances and your typical responses.
Ask trusted colleagues and friends for their observations of your behavior.
Stay calm, breathe deep, and model behavior.
When your negative feelings stir in the workplace,
take a slow and deliberate account of what is going
on. Our earliest studies of incivility uncovered a
typical escalating cycle of tit-for-tat behavior when
emotions were high. 9 Rather than fueling that cycle,
let agitation serve as a signal to step back.
Instead of engaging in reciprocal behavior, prac-
tice overcoming physiological signals that could draw
you into the drama. For example, when you feel your
emotions rising, pause and take a focused deep breath
rather than bursting forth with a knee-jerk reaction.
That momentary delay can help reason rather than
instinct drive your response. Think broadly, and aim
to spread composure by modeling it. Build a habit of
passing on fewer negative emotions than you receive,
regardless of the circumstances.
Fine-tune your radar. Watch facial expressions
and body language, especially when nonverbal be-
haviors don’t seem to match what you are hearing. To
build this skill, practice observing and interpreting
emotional actions and reactions at meetings and in
public settings. As the chief legal officer of an interna-
tional chemical company said, “The greatest benefit
of preparing for crises as a team is learning the ‘tells’
that the other leaders exhibit when their negative
emotions rise. Over the years, those subtle signals
have helped me determine when to step in and how
to frame my suggestions, especially when crises are
brewing.” Take account of the context and the stakes
for individuals. Afterward, check your accuracy by
seeking others’ perspectives about what occurred.
When you’re listening, listen fully. This requires
much more than simply focusing on the speaker. If
you are checking email on your phone or laptop,
you’re not listening fully. If your internal dialogue is
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
This article draws on a stream of research
that the author, in collaboration with coauthors, has carried out for more than two
decades to understand how managers and
employees handle the dark side of workplace behavior — from exceptional incidents
involving organizational crises to commonplace uncivil interactions among employees.i
All of the studies examined some aspect of
the role of negative emotions.
In our crisis management research, my
coauthors and I have worked directly with se-
nior executives and observed, interviewed,
and surveyed managers as they prepared for,
dealt with, and learned from crises and near
misses in their organizations. In our founda-
tional research into workplace incivility, we
collected survey data from thousands of
employees at all organizational levels. We
deepened and broadened our understanding
through further studies, in hundreds of inter-
views and additional surveys, and in scores of
focus groups with employees, managers, and
executives. Insights across studies also re-
flect consulting and collaboration with
organizational leaders as they attempted to
assess and improve their capabilities for deal-
ing with crises and incivility.
At the heart of this article is an ongoing,
multifaceted study to understand the management of negative emotions in the workplace.
To date, the research reported here has been
developed with the active engagement of
more than 350 managers and executives from
more than 200 organizations and three dozen
countries. We have gathered data from focus
groups, in-depth interviews, surveys, observa-
tion, and other field research. In many cases,
we began our inquiries by asking participants
to describe a critical incident that evoked
their negative emotions at work and to base
their responses and recommendations on
that situation. Information such as the
causes, contexts, and consequences of the
negative emotional experiences, as well as
the nature and effectiveness with which the
negative emotions were managed, were as-
sessed through simple content analysis of
the open-ended data. Our respondents rep-
resent a cross section of industries (public
and private companies, government, and
nongovernmental organizations), job types,
and management positions.