Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 246
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Emotional Eavesdropping

New research reveals a skill that burdens supervisors and lowers their performance.

There's something you should know about workplace emotions that Hillary Elfenbein from Harvard University recently discovered. You could be contributing to a problem without realizing it. The problem involves negative emotions, and it can best be illustrated by imagining yourself in a hypothetical scene from your workplace.

When you got to work this morning you were feeling fine. Your spirits were good. It was going to be a good day. But before very long, you noticed that one of your employees wasn't quite right. His conversation was fine, but his tone of voice let you know that something was bothering him. Something he didn't want to talk about. In the back of your mind, a little voice whispered that it was you. He was mad at you about something. This thought nagged at you throughout the morning, and by noon you found your own mood had changed. You were feeling out of sorts, too, and you snapped at a few people yourself.

If this scene seems fantastic to you, if it describes something that couldn't happen to you, then you're lucky. You lack a sensitivity to negative emotions expressed through non verbal communication channels, so you're unlikely to be adversely affected by sensing other people's negative emotions . . . emotions they are trying to hide.

But if your job involves supervising employees, then Professor Elfenbein believes it's likely that you are sensitive to employee negative emotions, and the problem illustrated above does occasionally happen to you.

Here's the story.

Occasionally, negative emotions wash over people: sadness, depression, disappointment (with oneself or others), anger (because of real or imagined wrongs), fear, and so on. Our people feel these emotions, but they know when they come to work that it's improper to express them. So, they cover them up. But concealing strong, negative emotions can be difficult, and they often leak out. Without a reasonable explanation, others who can sense these emotions are forced to imagine the reason for them, and this leads to trouble.

Ms. Elfenbein discovered that supervisors are often able to sense these concealed, negative emotions, and she discovered how they do it: supervisors can sense a person's true feelings in the tone of his/her voice. The tone of voice betrays a person's real emotions.

Many management experts believe this ability to sense authentic emotion is a strength and will lead to improved supervision, but Ms. Elfenbein's research discovered the opposite to be true. Supervisors in her study who demonstrated this ability had poorer performance than supervisors who lacked this ability. Elfenbein believes she knows why, and she explained it by calling attention to previous research into emotional contagion, that is, "catching" negative emotions from others like a virus.

Past research has shown that emotion is contagious. When people are happy, others are cheered. When they laugh, others laugh, too. But when people are sad, others find their spirits sinking. And when they snap at people and growl at coworkers, others find themselves behaving in a quarrelsome manner, too.

With concealed emotions, Elfenbein believes this process occurs only with those who can sense these hidden emotions, and supervisors in her study often possessed this sensitivity.

She also points out that supervisors often find themselves in a role that invites evaluation from employees because of the actions they must take that impact their employees, but employees lack a legitimate channel to express themselves, especially when their supervisors commit some transgression that irritates them. Under these conditions, supervisors who sense negative emotions may believe they have caused them, and they may feel resentful.

If you have this sensitivity, and if you sometimes find your mood and your actions slipping out of your control, then Ms. Elfenbein believes her research will arm you with understanding that may help you control yourself. She calls it emotional eavesdropping, and if you keep this term in mind, it may help you resist the tendency to allow the concealed, negative emotions of others to impact your mood and your actions.

Reference: Elfenbein, Hillary A. and Nalini Ambady (2002) Predicting Workplace Outcomes from the Ability to Eavesdrop on Feelings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87 (5), 963-971.

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