Business Psychology

Article No. 331
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

In Times of Great Distress

Research reveals a new strategy to help struggling employees.

One morning, you walk into work and see Alice, one of your employees, sitting quietly, staring at a point on the floor. Alice isn’t working, and it doesn’t appear she’s going to start working anytime soon. She’s wringing her hands, and her eyes are red, and she looks like she’s going to cry. No one has noticed her yet, but that won’t last long.

You have two choices in this situation. You can leave her alone, or you can try to help. Let’s examine both choices.

If you ignore Alice and get busy with your work, then you’ll be hoping that she’ll pull herself together and get started with her work. That may happen, or it may not. It could happen that a co-worker will notice Alice and offer to help. If that happens, then you’ll have two people not working.

If you decide to help Alice yourself, then you’ll offer to listen to her story. Very likely, this will occur in your office. Once again, you’ll have two people not working, but with you in the helping role, a number of expectations will be aroused. Most of these will be unrealistic, all of them will be costly, and the possibility of doing greater injury to Alice is likely. Not only will your help fail to actually benefit her, her disappointment that you failed to meet her unrealistic expectations will sting her, and she’ll remember this disappointment in future interactions with you. A minefield? Oh, yes!

You need a plan, a strategy that offers a high probability of helping Alice so she can get to work and not arouse expectations you’re sure to disappoint. Xiuping Li, from the National University of Singapore, has one. She’s an expert in negative emotions.

Negative emotions are triggered by the memory of bad experiences . . . a bitter quarrel, a sudden loss, a bad decision leading to disappointment, or a tragedy. Researchers have found that the better a person remembers the details of an upsetting experience, the more intensely they feel the negative emotions which the experience arouses. Psychological closure, a reduction in the intensity of negative emotions, comes when we begin forgetting the upsetting details. The sketchier our memory of an upsetting event, the greater the psychological closure, and the easier it is for us to set aside thinking about an upsetting event and get back to work. If you have ever advised someone to “just forget it,” you were right on the mark. Forgetting is exactly what helps, but telling someone to forget actually strengthens memories. It’s one of those curious contradictions of human nature. Telling someone to forget causes them to remember better, and Xiuping Li recently conducted a series of experiments testing a way to overcome this paradox.

LI worked with 247 students at her university. She conducted four experiments, and each one tested a way to make the details of an upsetting event harder to remember. After triggering a personal, unpleasant memory, she asked her subjects to write down the details on a piece of paper, including how they felt about it. In each experiment, half of the students enclosed their papers in an envelope while the other half did not. Finally, all the students turned in their papers to the experimenters. Subsequent measurements demonstrated that the students who enclosed their papers in envelopes had a significantly poorer memory of their experiences. They had a significantly higher degree of psychological closure regarding the event, and the negative emotions triggered by their memories were much less intense. In all four experiments, the differences were clear, positive, and significant. Writing down the details and enclosing the paper in an envelope works, but there is an important qualification.

Recall that telling a person to forget an upsetting memory actually strengthens it. Li qualifies her findings by reminding us that her students were unaware of the goal of helping them forget the details of their upsetting experiences, so, if you’re going to use these findings, you’re going to have to disguise this intent, too.

Keeping in mind both her findings and this qualification, Li suggests that we ask our people to put the details on paper when they can’t get something off their minds. If you’ve got the person in your office, get out a piece of paper and get the details yourself. It’s the details you want, so question a person if necessary: For example: “he called you a?”, “and then you?” and so on. Next, record how they feel about the experience. Name the emotions, and get them on paper, too. Finally, put the paper in an envelope. That’s the most important part. I’d seal it, hand it to the person, and give a specific work instruction, a task to complete right away. If they ask why you’re giving the envelope to them, answer that it is their information and no one else’s business.

Work is a great tonic. Li’s strategy of sealing upsetting details away so they are inaccessible to a person’s memory is really only half of the strategy. Once a person is helped to get to work, the work itself will draw attention away from the troubling memories.

Reference: Li, Xiuping, Liyuan Wei, and Dilip Soman (2010) Sealing the Emotions Genie: The Effects of Physical Enclosure on Psychological Closure. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1047-1050.

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