Unrelated negative feelings can impact your actions in different ways, new research shows

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Researchers at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and the University of Gronigen, in the Netherlands, have recently published a study on the effects of negative emotions on behavior. While their research was conducted with the workplace in mind, there are key lessons to be learned from their findings. Before we get to those implications, however, let’s review the research.

Unethical workplace behavior, ranging from tardiness to theft, costs businesses billions of dollars a year, so it’s important for managers to recognize how emotions may drive on-the-job behavior, says lead study author Daphna Motro, a doctoral student in management and organizations in the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

“At every level of an organization, every employee is experiencing emotion, so it’s universal, and emotions are really powerful—they can overtake you and make you do things you never thought you were capable of doing,” Motro says.

While research often looks at “negative emotions” as a whole, Motro illustrates in her work that not all negative emotions work in the same way. While anger and guilt are both negative feelings, they have very different effects on behavior.

The reason for the difference, Motro says, is how the two emotions impact processing.

“We found that anger was associated with more impulsive processing, which led to deviant behavior, since deviant behavior is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out,” Motro says. “Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with more careful, deliberate processing—trying to think about what you’ve done wrong, how to fix it—and so it leads to less deviance.”

Anger and guilt

Motro’s findings come from two studies, in which she and her collaborators used writing prompts to induce the desired emotion. The results appear in the Journal of Business Ethics.

Study participants were asked to write about either a time when they felt very angry or a time when they felt very guilty.

“Research has shown that writing about that time, remembering that time, actually brings those feelings back up to the present,” Motro says.

A third, control group was asked to simply describe in writing the last classroom they were in.

In the first study, participants completed a series of simple math problems and were told at the end to award themselves a quarter from an envelope for each correct answer. Those who before the task wrote about a time they were angry awarded themselves significantly more undeserved quarters at the end of the task than the neutral group. Those who had reflected on guilt awarded themselves far fewer undeserved quarters than the control group.

Participants in the second study played a computerized card game. Players started the game with $100 on the screen and were told to report each time a joker card appeared on the screen. For each joker reported, the player would lose $4. Participants were told that two people would be selected at random to take home whatever money was left at the end of the game.

Angry participants cheated more by not reporting jokers, and thereby claimed significantly more undeserved money, while guilty individuals claimed less undeserved money than the neutral group.

In the second study, researchers also used a Cognitive Reflection Test to show how anger and guilt differently affect processing. The test included a series of questions, each of which had an intuitive but incorrect response and a correct solution that would require more deliberation. Angry participants were more likely to respond impulsively and get the answer wrong, while guilty participants were more likely to deliberate and answer correctly.

A ‘spillover effect’

One of the most important findings of the research, Motro says, is that emotions can affect performance even when the feelings are in no way related to the task at hand.

“We show that anger can affect deviance in a completely different context, so if someone experiences anger and then they complete another task that is unassociated with the anger, there’s a spillover effect,” she says.

The consequences of unethical behavior at work are more than just financial, Motro points out. “If you’re an employee and you’re working in an environment that’s uncomfortable or unethical, it leads to less work engagement, less job satisfaction, and more turnover,” she says.

It’s worth noting that in both studies, there was some cheating even in the control groups.

“They cheated a little bit, but not much, which is consistent with the literature that suggests people tend to behave in their self-interest, which can translate into cheating behavior,” Motro says.

No guilt trips

Although guilty study participants behaved the most ethically, employers shouldn’t interpret that as a reason to make their employees feel guilty, Motro cautions.

“Too much guilt can be associated with shame, which is not a pleasant or positive emotional state,” she says.

Instead, bosses should simply be aware of their employees’ emotions and act accordingly. “Pay attention. An employee might be angry, and they might not be angry at you or anything that you’ve done specifically, but just pay careful attention,” Motro says. “Maybe tell them to take a short break and wait for them to cool down.”

Bottom Line for Mentors

The findings in these studies highlight the importance of keeping the broader context in mind when working with your mentee. If things are challenging in your relationship and your mentee seems upset with you, it’s possible that their actions are not related to you at all, but rather could be something else in their lives which is upsetting them. If your mentee is behaving strangely or is adversarial or standoffish towards you, it may be an opportunity to ask them about broader issues in their lives to determine what may be the cause of their difficult behavior.

By the same token, it’s also important to keep in mind the effect your emotions may have on your interactions with your mentee, even when those emotions are unrelated to the mentoring relationship. If you feel as though you are unnaturally irritated or upset with your mentee before you even meet them, take a moment to reflect on what may be causing those emotions in other aspects of your life. By taking that moment, you can prevent an unnecessary misunderstanding that may threaten the quality of your relationship.

Source: University of Arizona

Original Study DOI: 10.1007/s10551-016-3337-x