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Don’t Put Your Emotions in a Box at Work, Study Suggests

To Be More Creative, Teams Must Feel Free to Express Positive, Negative Feelings

By Carrie Handwerker

Work emotions emoji photo illustration

Photo illustration by iStock

A UMD business researcher and colleagues, including two Maryland Smith alums, found that work teams that encouraged members to express both positive and negative emotions reaped performance benefits.

Being professional doesn’t mean being an unemotional robot. In fact, when companies encourage employees to bare their feelings—both positive and negative—to fellow team members, the result can increase creative problem-solving, according to recently published findings from a Maryland Smith professor and colleagues.

The research featured in the journal Organization Science stemmed from a visit by Myeong-Gu Seo to a global tech company lagging behind its competitors in innovation.

“I immediately noticed that it was about the emotional climate,” said Seo. an associate professor of management and organization.

What he saw inspired him and collaborators—Smith alum Michael R. Parke Ph.D. ’16, now at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Xiaoran Hu of the London School of Economics and Smith alum Sirkwoo Jin Ph.D. ’10, now at Merrimack College—to study the link between emotions and creativity.

Seo and his co-authors focused on authenticity—whether members of teams felt they could express their true emotions or felt they had to suppress them. Through two field studies and two lab-based experiments that incorporated gestures and facial expressions among other ways to convey emotion, the researchers showed that the level of authenticity in a team’s climate is the key to having an innovative, creative team.

When people are empowered to open up, it creates room for more free expression and more exploration of ideas, said Seo. Particularly in the early stage of the creative process, ideas are still unformed and feelings and emotions can play a larger role than logical explanations in generating, communicating and evaluating those ideas, he said.

“That emotional space actually opens up a lot of information elaboration and sharing in teams,” Seo said. “But when you kill emotional expression altogether, you kill all other information processing.”

Contrary to the beliefs of many managers who fixate on positivity, negative emotions are also important in the creative process for teams: “They help teams evaluate options and help other people to deeply think about the drawbacks of any ideas,” he said.

The researchers found the effect strongest in cross-functional teams, where team members often have very different knowledge backgrounds, worldviews and cultural norms, and may not be able to clearly communicate with each other. “Emotions can allow them to communicate with each other, in spite of other barriers, more efficiently and easily in a rich manner,” Seo said.

Managers who want to put these findings to work need to keep in mind that how they behave sets the tone, he added. “They should freely express their emotions and invite others to do so. Show empathic responses and encourage more exploration of ideas.”

The effect need not only be from the top down, he said. Team members can model such behavior for a more “authentic affect” climate—but realize change won’t happen overnight.

“You can work on strengthening your relationships with team members so you feel more comfortable working to change the climate. It might take more time … but it is doable … even if you’re not a team leader.”




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