blaming or criticizing, you’re not listening fully. If
you’re jumping to solutions or thinking about the
story that you will share when it’s your turn to talk,
you’re not listening fully. Cease these behaviors to
demonstrate that you care. You will catch signals earlier and interpret their meanings more astutely.
Stepping Up to Negative Emotions
When managers fail to notice or respond to negative
emotions, they subsequently encounter increases in
rifts, resentment, and dissatisfaction among employees. 10 When negative emotions are allowed to brew,
physiological predisposition can cause coworkers
to mimic the movements, postures, and facial
expressions of those feeling bad. 11 Notably, this synchronization happens automatically, so others may
mirror negative expressions without awareness that
they are doing so. Unconsciously passing on negative
emotions can erode productivity and cooperation.
In the worst cases, managers have described a cloud of
negative emotions that can spread throughout the
workplace, making it more difficult to recruit and
retain the best employees.
Leaders can be strategically shortsighted when they
ignore or miss negative emotions in the workplace. In
a recent study exploring negative incidents at work,
99 managers at an international Fortune 100 manufacturer shared examples of early warning signals
that were missed prior to negative incidents, despite
employee concerns. 12 In some of the cases, larger problems grew in the interim, and delays complicated
rectifying or learning from difficult circumstances.
The benefits of addressing negative emotions can be
significant. Promptly stepping up can stem interpersonal turbulence and keep satisfaction, engagement,
and productivity intact. Moreover, those who take
the initiative to step up often experience personal
gratification from helping others in meaningful ways.
How to Step Up
Tend to signals of negative emotions early. Watch for
warning signs across your team. Are individuals putting
in fewer hours or less effort? Has engagement dwin-
dled? Are fewer employees showing up for discretionary
activities such as celebrations or noncompulsory
meetings? In our research and practice, these behaviors
have signaled underlying negative emotions. Take a
close look at hard data and trends that can be signs of
dissatisfaction and withdrawal, such as late arrivals,
absenteeism, and voluntary turnover.
Even small supportive gestures from managers
can improve employees’ ability to cope. Anticipate
that employees facing tough times will have negative
feelings. Discuss and determine what employees
need and what you are able to offer. Convey frank
optimism and confidence that they can manage the
challenges. Find ways to offer additional support
and resources to help them.
Seek out troubled employees. When behaviors
seem emotionally charged, it can be challenging to
understand what is happening. Start by gathering
data. Ask simple, neutral questions to get a conversa-
tion going, such as “How are you doing today?”
or “Everything OK?” Then, tune in sharply to the re-
sponse, taking stock of subtle indicators like volume,
pitch, and speed of speech. Consider whether an em-
ployee’s behaviors and expressions are unusual or out
of sync with the rhythm of your conversation. Listen
for veiled references to negative emotions. Employees
may not be comfortable saying they are sad, but they
might tell you they feel discouraged or disappointed.
Resist the urge to fix others’ problems for them.
Be quick to listen and offer support but slow to advise.
As a senior production manager in a manufacturing
company explained, “What works for me is to voice
my concerns, lightly, and then wait for the response.
I’m also really careful not to jump into the role of
being the parent.” Ask questions to help employees
determine what the best approaches would be. Help
employees map out specific individuals in their net-
work who could provide the support they need.
When negative emotions are rooted in conflicts
among employees, strive to get adversaries to work to-
gether to resolve their differences. Urge them to
prepare for a discussion together and, in that discus-
sion, to stick to the issue at hand. To drive reconciliation,
help them understand the personal costs and larger
stakes if they cannot move past their differences.
Sometimes, individuals cannot get unstuck from
their negative emotions. If troubled employees are
unwilling to consider alternative perspectives or ap-
proaches, accept that for the time being. Rather than
push harder, take a step back, observe, and remain
available, as appropriate.
Do not assume that negative emotions have dissolved when hard times seem to have passed. The full