How many times have you heard someone say, “let’s just take the emotions out of this discussion?” It’s one of my favorite lines I hear in team effectiveness sessions. And when I say “favorite,” I mean, forehead slapping, groan-inducing, “this is going to be a long day” type of favorite. Recently, a colleague shared with me a new piece of research that sheds some light on how you should respond to the outward display of negative emotions on your team.

The study, by Little, Gooty, and Williams, tests the impact of tactics managers use to deal with emotional reactions on a variety of important outcomes such as perceived quality of the supervisory relationship, job satisfaction, and a person’s extra efforts to be a good corporate citizen. The results demonstrate that how you respond to your team members’ negative reactions has an important impact on their engagement.

Emotional Responses

Let’s take a step back and talk about the emotional responses that are common in the workplace. There are all manner of feelings and emotions that get triggered when work doesn’t go as expected. Perhaps the most common one that I see is frustration. Interestingly, frustration manifests differently in different people; sometimes in a loud voice and blustery tone, other times in tears and sunken body language. Other runners up for common negative emotions in the meeting room are anger, embarrassment, fear, and jealously. None of these leads to a good experience of work or to a productive team dynamic. It’s understandable that you want to get past these negative emotions pronto!

Manager Reactions

Ok, so if you as a manager are staring into the face of an employee’s frustration, anger, or fear, trying to move beyond it, what do you do? The research looks at four different strategies. The scientists have funky names for them such as “attention deployment,” but I’ll use plain English.

Change the situation. One option you have to address a negative emotional reaction from a team member is to change the situation. Metaphorically, if your employee has a nail in their forehead, you remove the nail. (I know it’s an extreme example, but I’ll tell you why I picked it at the end.)

Perhaps the most common example of this would be a negative reaction triggered by too much work, to which you respond by removing part of the workload.

Change the perception of the situation. A second option for responding to a negative emotional reaction is to change how the person thinks about the situation. You’re not alleviating the problem, just reducing the emotional impact of the problem. In our metaphor, this strategy leaves the nail in place, but has you help the employee manage the pain.

Applying the perception strategy to the heavy workload example, you don’t remove any tasks, but you make it clear that you’re grateful for how much the person is taking on and that you’re not expecting it to get done in a day.

Distract from the situation. This is the “attentional deployment” option (don’t you love how scientists use language!?!) Basically, you do nothing to address the problem; you only address the emotional reaction—simply by diverting attention away from it. This is akin to your team member walking into your office with a nail in his forehead and you responding with “let’s go grab a latte!”

I see this kind of response all the time. Sometimes the manager tries to diffuse emotion with humor. More commonly, the team leader just moves on to the next agenda item when things get too emotional. All it takes is one swift “let’s take this offline,” and the emotion is removed from view.

Discourage the emotion. The final option the researchers studied was when you respond directly to the emotion in hopes of supressing it, or at least stifling any outward display of feelings. When the employee is getting frustrated with the throbbing pain of the nail in her forehead, you tell her to “suck it up, cry baby!”

While “suck it up, cry baby” is probably overstating the case, it’s not uncommon for managers to actively discourage emotion. The most pervasive examples include the “let’s take the emotion out if it” admonition, the “relax” instruction accompanied by the reassuring dampening motion of the hands, or the strict “that’s enough” father-knows-best approach.


So, what’s your guess? Which of these strategies works to strengthen your relationship with your direct reports and which erodes it? Which approach leaves the employee wanting to do more to make you and the organization successful and which one has them stealing office supplies to restore a sense of justice?

It turns out that the first two strategies are both beneficial. When you focus on the problem itself and either reduce the problem at its source or reduce the perceived impact of the problem, you engender positive feelings from your direct report.

Interestingly, distracting your employee didn’t have much impact at all, neither positively nor negatively. The researchers posit that the impact of distraction might be situational or that some managers can get away with it, whereas others can’t. I wouldn’t risk it.

And that brings us to the final tactic, one frequently on display from managers in this era of productivity and accountability, the “put a lid on it” method. Surprise, surprise, invalidating, supressing, or otherwise stifling an emotional reaction erodes the employee’s perceptions of you, reduces their job satisfaction, and makes it less likely that he’ll go above and beyond to help the team and the company. Shocking!!!

So there you have it. When faced with emotion at work, focus on the issue, not the emotion. Either make a dent in the problem or reduce the dent it’s making in your team member.

Now…why did I choose to use the metaphor of a nail in the forehead? It’s from a truly hilarious video that explores one option that the researchers didn’t consider. That’s the option of really listening to the person about how they’re experiencing the problem; without judging and without trying to fix it. I know that this is the preference for many direct reports. These folks just want to feel heard and understood and then they’ll be fine to solve the problem for themselves. Maybe I’ll send the video to the scientists and suggest they add the empathetic approach to their next study.

Further Reading

HBR: When an argument gets too heated

3 benefits of dealing with emotions on your team

Crying at work