Business Psychology

Article No. 364
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Grumpy in the Afternoon

Research explains a common occurrence in organizational life.

"When you come to work, leave your problems at the door."

Raise your hand if you've ever said this to an employee. Raise your hand if it's ever been said to you.

Customers, coworkers, and bosses need to experience employees who have their emotions under control, at least the outward signs of emotion. If a person is angry, we expect to see a calm, reasonable exterior. If a person is frustrated, we expect to see calm, steady actions that mask the inner turmoil. We need people to stay in control of themselves, and generally, they do, but it's work. We call it emotional labor.

Researchers have devised a theory which explains this process of feeling one way and acting another. It's called resource-based self-regulation. It proposes that at any given time, individuals have a finite amount of energy available to regulate their emotions. When energy reserves are high, a person can successfully manage their outward expressions of emotion. When reserves are low, they have trouble. Emotions may leak out and betray themselves in outward actions, like displaced aggression, e.g. hostile actions taken toward available or safe targets rather than directed to the source of the provocation.

Yihao Liu from the University of Florida is interested in resource-based self-regulation. Recently, he made predictions based on the theory, and he tested them in the workplace.

Liu began by considering everyday events that would draw down energy reserves. High on his list was work/family conflict. Most of us find it difficult to balance our roles in our families and in our work, and often, when they conflict, it prevents us from being good at both roles, and that's upsetting. Workplace interpersonal conflict also draws on resources, i.e. when strains must be endured and slights ignored while inner ruminations scream to retaliate. Finally, environmental factors like temperature, noise, and interruptions can also nag at a person and tax limited resources.

Considering all these factors, Liu made two sets of predictions. First, he predicted that people who manage emotions associated with work/family role conflicts would run out of energy by midafternoon, and then, they would be more likely to act aggressively toward coworkers, supervisors, and customers. We call this being grumpy, sharp, or snappy. Liu also predicted that interpersonal conflict at work and environmental irritants would add to the drain of energy making afternoon displaced aggression even more likely. In his examination of these predictions in a typical workplace, he found that he was right. Further, he predicted that employees who run out of energy in the afternoon would also be more likely to exhibit displaced aggression after they leave work, when they get home to their families. Once again, Liu found that he was right.

Second, Liu predicted that manager actions that create a sense of support in work/family role conflicts would lessen the energy required to manage emotions thereby making midafternoon emotional exhaustion less likely and displaced aggression less frequent. Once again, when he investigated, he found he was right.

So, are you grumpy in the afternoon? Are your people? If so, Liu suggests you find ways to be supportive to your people in work/family role conflicts. It's probably the underlying cause. Focus on ways you can help people meet family demands and fulfill family duties such as child care assistance, dependent care, and elder care assistance. Also, anything you can do to reduce workplace interpersonal conflict and environmental annoyances will help.

Displaced aggression can be discouraged, and it's so bad for business that steps we can take to reduce it would be a wise investment.

Reference: Liu, Yihao, Mo Wang, Chu/Hsiang Chang, Junqui Shi, Le Zhou, and Ruodan Shao (2015) Work-Family Conflict, Emotional Exhaustion, and Displaced Aggression Toward Others: The Moderating Roles of Workplace Interpersonal Conflict and Perceived Managerial Family Support. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 793-808.

© Management Resources

Keywords: Work/family role conflict, Interpersonal Conflict, Self-regulation, and Emotional labor
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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