Emotions in the Workplace - Principles of Management

Emotions have a profound effect on almost everything we do in the workplace. This is a strong statement—one you would rarely find a decade ago in management research or textbooks. For most of its history the field of management assumed that a person’s thoughts and actions are governed primarily by conscious reasoning (called cognitions ).

But groundbreaking neuroscience discoveries have revealed that our perceptions, attitudes, decisions, and behavior are influenced by both cognition and emotions, and that the latter often have greater influence. By ignoring the role of emotions, we have limited our ability to understand human behavior in the workplace. Today experts in management, marketing, economics, and many other social sciences are catching up by making emotions a key part of their research and theories.

So what are emotions? Emotions are physiological, behavioral, and psychological episodes experienced toward an object, person, or event that create a state of readiness. They are brief events that typically subside or occur in waves lasting a few minutes. Emotions are directed toward someone or something. For example, we experience joy, fear, anger, and other emotional episodes toward tasks, customers, or a software program we are using.

This contrasts with moods, which are less intense emotional states that are not directed toward anything in particular. Emotions are experiences regulating how our body responds to the environment. When we are happy or bored, our blood pressure, heart rate, facial muscles, voice tone, and other features change. These bodily changes relate to the fact that emotions put us in a state of readiness. Most emotions are experienced unconsciously, but strong emotions make us consciously aware of events that may affect our survival and well-being.


Emotions influence our thoughts and behavior; but to understand how this works, we also need to know about attitudes. Attitudes are clusters of beliefs, assessed feelings, and behavioral intentions toward a person, object, or event. Attitudes are judgments, whereas emotions are experiences. In other words, attitudes involve conscious logical reasoning, whereas emotions operate as events, often without our awareness. We also experience most emotions briefly, whereas our attitude toward someone or something is more stable over time.

Attitudes include three components: beliefs, feelings, and behavioral intentions. We’ll look at each of them using attitude toward mergers as an illustration:

Beliefs: These are established perceptions about the attitude object—what you believe to be true. For example, you might believe that mergers reduce job security for employees in the merged firms. Or you might believe that mergers increase the company’s competitiveness in this era of globalization. These beliefs are perceived facts that you acquire from past experience and other forms of learning.
Feelings: Feelings represent your positive or negative evaluations of the attitude object.
Some people think mergers are good; others think they are bad. Your like or dislike of mergers represents your assessed feelings toward the attitude object.
Behavioral intentions: These represent your motivation to engage in a particular behavior with respect to the attitude object. You might plan to quit rather than stay with the company during the merger. Alternatively, you might intend to e-mail the company CEO to say that this merger was a good decision.

Now we come to the important part for managers: how emotions and attitudes are connected to each other and to behavior. This process, which is illustrated in Figure below, has two interrelated activities connected to cognition and emotion. On the cognitive side, your feelings toward someone or something (such as a merger) are shaped by your beliefs about that person or event. If you believe mergers threaten your career development and usually fail to improve organizations’ competitiveness, you would likely have negative feelings toward mergers.

Next, feelings directly influence behavioral intentions. If you dislike mergers, you might intend to quit or complain to the senior executive team about your company’s recently announced merger. Whether you quit or complain depends on your personality, the current situation, and what has worked well for you in the past.

Model of Emotions, Attitudes, and Behavior

Model of Emotions, Attitudes, and Behavior

Finally, behavioral intentions are better than feelings or beliefs at predicting a person’s behavior. Even so, behavioral intentions do not perfectly predict behavior because they represent only the motivation to act, whereas actual behavior is also caused by the other three factors in the MARS model—ability, role perceptions, and situational factors. You might plan to send an e-mail message to management complaining about the announced merger, but perhaps you never get around to this task due to heavy work obligations. You might intend to quit your job in reaction to the merger but end up staying because you can’t find a better job.

How Emotions Influence Attitudes and Behavior Now that we have outlined the cognitive explanation of how attitudes predict behavior, let’s turn to the right side of Figure above , which shows how emotions influence our attitudes and behavior. Essentially we automatically attach emotions to incoming information when it is received through our senses even though we have not consciously thought about it. These are not calculated feelings; they are automatic and unconscious emotional responses based on thin slices of sensory information.

Returning to our previous example, you might experience excitement, worry, nervousness, or happiness upon learning that your company intends to merge with a competitor.

The large dots on the right side of Figure above illustrate these multiple emotional episodes triggered by the merger announcement, subsequent thinking about the merger, discussion with coworkers about the merger, and so on. These emotions are transmitted to the logical reasoning process, where they swirl around and ultimately shape our conscious feelings toward the merger.

While you logically figure out whether the proposed merger is a good or bad thing, your emotions have already formed an opinion, which then sways your thoughts. If you experience excitement, delight, comfort, and other positive emotions whenever you think about the merger, these positive emotional episodes will tend to make you favorably evaluate the merger.

The effect of emotions on workplace attitudes has important management implications. When employees perform their jobs, they experience a variety of emotions that shape their longer-term feelings toward the company, the boss, the job itself, and coworkers. The more they experience positive emotions, the more employees form positive attitudes toward the targets of those emotions. Thus an important role of management is to create as many positive emotions as possible and minimize the incidence of negative emotions.

Google, the company that created the ubiquitous search engine, is another sparkling example. The company’s Googleplex (headquarters) in Mountain View, California, “resembles a glimmering playground for 20-somethings,” says one observer.

The building is outfitted with lava lamps, exercise balls, casual sofas, foosball, pool tables, workout rooms, video games, a restaurant with free gourmet meals, and a small pool where swimmers exercise against an artificial current. Beach volleyball matches are held in the courtyard, and roller hockey games are played in the parking lot. Google executives have had to remind some employees that making the Googleplex their permanent residence was against building code regulations.

An icon of the positive emotions movement is the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, where fishmongers turned the money-losing, morale-draining business into a world famous attraction by deciding to have fun at work, such as tossing fish around and joking with customers. Out of this turnaround came four Fish! principles: Play, make their day, be there, and choose your attitude.

To create an exciting workplace, employees need to learn how to play, just as the fishmongers toss fish and find other ways to enjoy themselves at work. “Make their day” refers to involving clients and coworkers so they, too, have a positive experience. “Be there” means employees need to be focused (not mentally in several places) and actively engaged to have fun. “Choose your attitude” says that everyone has the power to choose how they feel at work.

Although the environment might contribute to malaise, this Fish! principle says that employees ultimately decide how that environment will affect their emotions, attitudes, and behavior.


Up to this point we have explained how emotions and attitudes influence behavior, yet there are situations in which the opposite occurs. A person’s actions sometimes influence his or her attitudes when they are inconsistent with each other. This inconsistency potentially creates an uncomfortable tension, called cognitive dissonance, that motivates people to change their attitudes so they are more consistent with the behavior. Everyone experiences some degree of cognitive dissonance from time to time.

You remind your staff to show up to work on time, but you arrive late for work a few days later. You teach your children to read class materials long before class, yet you hurriedly scan documents for an important meeting just before the meeting begins.

The extent to which people experience cognitive dissonance tension depends on how much the behavior is public, important, and voluntary. First, there is usually much less tension if no one noticed the inconsistent behavior. You are less likely to experience cognitive dissonance for being late if no one noticed, for instance, whereas dissonance might be quite strong if the employees whom you encouraged a few days earlier to show up to work on time catch you arriving late.

The importance of the attitude and behavior is a second factor. You might not feel uncomfortable about being caught arriving late for work if lateness is considered a minor indiscretion in your workplace. A third factor is how much control you have over the behavior. You are more likely to experience cognitive dissonance if you could have avoided being late for work than if the lateness is due to factors beyond your control (such as unusually bad traffic congestion).

When people experience cognitive dissonance, the resulting tension motivates them to realign their attitudes and behavior. Because the behavior has already occurred (and is public, so it can’t be denied), the most common way to reduce dissonance is to change the attitude. In our example, if employees notice that you have shown up late for work, you might change your attitude about the importance of arriving at work on time. In the future you might form less of a negative attitude toward people who are late for work, and your new attitude about punctuality might result in less lecturing to employees about this issue.

Now that we have introduced the dynamics of emotions and work attitudes, let’s look more closely at two of the most important work attitudes: job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

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