Fear, Anger, and Productivity in the Workplace

Faculty member David Lebel

Faculty member David Lebel

In workplace settings, emotions have long been thought of as disruptive to our thinking and functioning. Managers routinely tell employees to check their feelings at the door, because they perceive emotions as hampering one’s ability to process information, solve problems, and think rationally.  However, a growing body of research makes a convincing case that emotions—even negative ones—can sometimes produce beneficial behaviors for employees and the larger organization.

So what does this mean for managers? A good way to think of it is the example of a student who is anxious about an upcoming exam. The anxiety may encourage the student to study harder in order to avoid a poor grade. Or the anxiety could be overwhelming, causing the student to choose to see a movie with friends instead of studying more. In each case, the emotion—anxiety—is the same, but the result it produces is different. Why is that?

The same situations occur in workplaces, only instead of tests the goals are sales or product launches. My research has explored cases in which specific negative emotions such as fear or anger can sometimes generate positive outcomes in organizations. For example, I recently studied the effects of fear in the workplace at three organizations that, due to the recent economic crisis, were experiencing potential employee layoffs. I found that employees, precisely because they were motivated by fear of job loss, were more likely to speak up with constructive ideas and suggestions for improvement. But this positive outcome came with a major caveat: This only occurred when employees perceived that their supervisors were open to input. When these conditions were met, employees were able to overcome their fear by working to benefit the larger organization. The reverse was true, however, when employees feared possible retribution for speaking up.  Under these circumstances, employees were less likely to voice their ideas. Therefore, the source of fear matters. Fears of negative repercussions from speaking up silenced good ideas from employees, whereas fears of potential job loss increased employees’ motivation to speak up, provided, of course, that supervisors were supportive.

Fear-in-the-workplace-2In another study, I explored when anger can spark productive rather than destructive behavior at work. Feelings of anger usually motivate a desire to punish or get back at someone. This motivation can actually lead to positive outcomes when the energy from anger is directed on behalf of co-workers or the larger organization.  For example, an employee who is frustrated with work processes or is upset by being blocked by red tape may come up with more efficient or innovative ways to do business.  Or an employee upset after witnessing a co-worker being mistreated may be motivated to speak up to correct the situation and prevent the mistreatment in the future.  Employees are capable of re-focusing their anger, seeing obstacles as a challenge rather than as a roadblock.  In this sense, anger or frustration can fuel passion for functional change within an organization.

Of course, feelings of fear and anger are generally counterproductive in organizational settings.  The frequent experience of fear can lead to burnout, withdrawal, or high turnover rates from employees leaving for new jobs. Moreover, the frequent experience of anger can generate unproductive conflicts, the mistreatment of co-workers, and downward spirals of negative behavior.  Because of this, I strongly discourage managers and leaders from creating or using negative emotions to motivate employees. The takeaway for managers is to notice when their employees are experiencing negative emotions and to understand which specific emotions are occurring. Doing so is an opportunity for the manager to lend support or training or to encourage an employee to speak up.

In conclusion, the conventional wisdom that workplace emotions are always bad is outdated, unrealistic, and ineffective. Even the best managers will have employees who are sometimes fearful or angry. The best course of action is to diagnose why employees are feeling that way and to be as supportive as possible. If you do so, then you may be able to leverage those negative emotions to produce positive results.

If you are interested in learning more on the subject, please feel free to contact me directly. If you want further reading on the subject, of the non-research-paper variety, you may also be interested in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

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