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Stop Bottling Your Emotions At Work

Jun 09, 2017
World Class Faculty & Research

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST – All those emotions you've been bottling up in the workplace in the interest of projecting a professional image? You might have been better off letting some of them fly free.

Recent research from Myeong-Gu Seo, associate professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, and Michael Parke, assistant professor at the London School of Business, shows that workplaces where employees feel comfortable expressing their feelings tend to be more productive, creative and innovative.

Who knew? For years, office culture has instilled the idea that emotion has no place in the workplace. "For a long time, the dominant perspective," says Seo, "has been that emotion is the opposite of rationality."

Now, a growing body of evidence across disciplines suggests that's not true. In affective neuroscience, for example, researchers are discovering that without emotions, there can be no rationality. "We have taken emotions for granted for a long time and treated it as something malfunctioning, or as the opposite of good management," he says. "What  psychologists and neuroscientists are now telling us is that, no, actually, it’s the other way around."

Seo, who teaches management and organization courses at the Smith School, says it typically falls to leaders to foster an environment that encourages emotional expressions.

Increasingly, managers are harnessing troves of data and analytics to make decisions and set an organization's path. Seo says emotions can play an important role. "Today we are putting together all kinds of information in the workplace to make the best decisions possible," Seo says. "Emotion is such a great information carrier."

In highly effective teams, colleagues share information with emotion, detect each other's emotion and react to it. When colleagues are encouraged to be open about their emotions, the researchers found, it can help establish stronger bonds in the workplace, improve productivity, spark creativity and reduce error rates, particularly in high-pressure or fast-changing situations.

The researchers recommend that managers assess the emotion-sharing climate of their organization and look for new ways to engage staff, and spark authentic experiences and expressions of emotions.

"If you look at Google, for example, and other good organizations out there, they actually foster and utilize emotion rather than killing it," Seo says. 

For example, positive emotions are directly correlated to innovation and creative thinking, the researchers found. And that might help explain why innovative companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere  have embraced playground-like work environments.

Still other organizations continue to struggle to produce innovative outcomes. "They might have the best HR systems in the world, but they struggle. It's because they are very serious. Nobody laughs. They suppress emotions, so people don't talk. They don't speak up," Seo says.

In many such organizations, he says, information flows from top to bottom, and never from bottom up. Lateral information sharing becomes limited and so does innovative outcomes, he says.

"It's true that sometimes emotions screw up," says Seo, "but emotions are such a wonderful adaptive system that humans beings have. Emotions are something to utilize, not to suppress or minimize, at work."

Read more: "The Role of Affect Climate in Organizational Effectiveness" is published by Academy of Management Review. 

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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