Underrated Emotions to Channel in the Workplace

Some emotions—even those traditionally perceived in a negative light—can be used to better an employee’s career and their organization.

I often have sat a desk in an office frustrated and regretful. If only I knew at the time that those emotions could be put to good use.

Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss, authors of “Move Fast and Fix Things,” shared with Harvard Business Review how some emotions—even those traditionally perceived in a negative light—can be used to better an employee’s career and their organization.

Frustration Leads to Innovation

Frustration, for instance, can be used to help power breakthroughs that lead to exciting innovation. “Next-level serial entrepreneur Paul English has tapped into frustration for every one of his breakthrough ideas, including channeling it into the launch of metasearch engine Kayak after he couldn’t believe how much time he was spending going from one airline Website to another to try to find the best flight,” Frei and Morriss write.

In your own organization, you could ask employees to share frustrating experiences using products and services your company produces. They could share the frustrating experience as it relates specifically to your own products and services or those from any provider in your space that they have endured. For example, for an airline, employees could share their frustrating experience with unhelpful customer services representatives or with additional charges tacked onto the original price of their ticket, which made what they thought was a great deal not so great after all.

Regrets—We’ve Had a Few

It’s often been said that you should live without regrets. In business, however, regret can serve the purpose of showing you how not to experience it again. It’s such a negative emotion that I have found it leads to teachable moments. I want to remember what I did that led to the regret, so I never have to experience that feeling again.

“As uncomfortable as it is to sit with regret, it often shows us what to do differently next time. It also may give us clues to what we may need to clean up. If you’re still regretting that comment three days later, it’s a pretty good signal you need to apologize,” Frei and Morriss note.

What if you added a question to the self-assessment section of your annual performance reviews that asked the employee to share one work-related decision or action from the past year they regret? Some will be too timid to answer the question, but others will think deeply about it and give a thoughtful response. When they have identified those areas of regret, they will know what to avoid doing or do differently in the coming year.

Anger Lessons

Anger is another emotion that usually is thought of as negative, but it can be useful. Talking through the “why” behind the feeling with a manager or Learning professional might serve as a lesson for the employee, or even the whole organization. “Anger is often a secondary emotion, a mask for more complicated feelings such as disappointment or sadness. When we coach people through this one, that’s often the place we’ll start. What might be living underneath the anger? What can you learn from that emotion?” Frei and Morriss write.

I once expressed significant anger in a meeting with a former boss and his boss. The root of my anger, which was revealed to our department head at the time, was the lack of development opportunities and the feeling that I was treated dismissively. Those problems gradually were turned around, cutting down on my anger. In the process, our department leadership may have learned a lesson on how NOT to manage an employee.

Genuine Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is an emotion traditionally perceived as positive that the authors also highlight for its potential to help in the workplace. Some in a professional setting are afraid to be too ebullient and excited about a new project. They’re afraid of people like me, maybe, who get irritated by too much overt enthusiasm. Be that as it may, many others will appreciate the enthusiasm and follow along the enthusiast’s path to innovation or success at the new endeavor. In my case, enthusiasm can be tolerable, and even positive, if it is sincere. It becomes annoying mostly when it seems like a deliberate performance.

“…don’t forget that the most effective change leaders are evangelical about the world they’re building and reveal their enthusiasm at every turn,” the authors write.

Root for Your Colleagues

Like enthusiasm, people also sometimes feel compelled to suppress devotion to others in the workplace. You don’t want to seem too soft or sentimental. Showing your devotion to the achievement of others in the organization, though, can help everyone to be more successful. “We sometimes hold back the full extent of our devotion based on the false belief that it will somehow get in the way of the high standards part. In short, it won’t, so please make it very clear how much you want your colleagues to crush it,” Frei and Morriss emphasize.

Do you discuss with employees how to harness even seemingly negative emotions into forces for good in the workplace?