Negative emotions are bound to occur at work, both in good and bad times. To stay productive, you need to be aware of the pitfalls and learn to use them to your advantage.
Think about what it’s like when you’re at your most productive – everything is flowing and you tick off one task after the other with ease. You believe you can move mountains.
At times like these, what’s your mood like? Chances are that you’re positive and upbeat.
We know very well that one of the best ways to improve our work performance is to feel happier. Research publications on this subject have been abundant in recent years. One study has revealed that “happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%”.
With this knowledge, organisations worldwide are now investing into creating a positive atmosphere and experience for their teams, placing happiness at the centre of their culture. And you’re probably making great efforts to stay positive yourself, not only to be able to work better, but because happiness is a worthwhile goal in itself.
Ups and downs
But what happens when something dampens your spirit?
Recently we’ve been relentlessly bombarded with alarming news. But even when we don’t need to deal with major global threats, and business is running as usual, we all have our ups and downs. It can be difficult to shelter ourselves from unpleasant situations and experiences.
Just think of the times when you’re lured into a frustrating argument, receive a phone call from a demanding client, or find out that you’ve missed out on an important opportunity.
With a heavy heart and troubled mind, it’s not easy to gain or regain focus and momentum. The work that normally energises you may mean very little to you at this time. You might find that your mind is often blank, and your sense of control has vanished.
Of course, you’re still doing your best. But if you ignore the impact of negative emotions, you could make a real mess of your work, and perhaps create more problems than you had before.
Low moods can linger
Well, there’s no shortage of good advice on how to manage negative thoughts and bounce back. You can practice mindfulness, focus on something positive, talk to a friend, go for a walk, do some exercise, seek professional help … the list is long.
But let’s face it, sometimes those low moods linger. Perhaps you feel so deflated that you can’t even be bothered doing anything about the issue. Or your problems are so enormous that you can’t rise above.
However, you certainly don’t want your negative emotions to create further problems. It’s therefore useful to understand how low moods can influence different aspects of your work – especially because, while you’re consumed by emotions, you may not even notice the damage you could cause.
Emotions at play
If happiness boosts performance, there must be a flip side. Unhappiness can present serious disadvantages at work, if we’re not careful.
Here are just 11 of the many ways negative emotions can impact our performance:
- We become worse at communicating, including making sales
- We may have a reduced capacity for empathy and compassion
- Our words can become more cynical and critical than we intend them to be
- We may become irritable, and accidentally hurt or lash out at people
- We perceive risks to be greater than they actually are, when feeling upset
- It’s nearly impossible to think creatively and originally when feeling down
- We tend to make more mistakes, and also make worse decisions
- It’s very difficult to learn new skills or retain information in a negative state
- It’s unlikely that we can handle complicated situations and challenges well
- We struggle with self-discipline, and thus become more likely to succumb to unproductive habits such as self-distraction and procrastination
- We may adhere to a different ethical and moral code than otherwise, and do something we could feel ashamed of later
There’s a good reason for all this. Our physiology and brain chemistry change when we’re in a negative emotional state, and parts of our brain – including those assisting with creative thinking – shut down.
So what can you do when you feel down and you’ve got work to do?
First and foremost, acknowledge how you feel. You might also want to share with those you work with that you are not quite yourself at the moment. But please don’t criticise yourself for the state you’re in. I can’t think of a single reason how that could be useful.
Choose work activities that you’re capable of doing well – tasks that require little creativity and emotional investment. Avoid making big decisions, initiating difficult conversations, and perhaps even giving feedback.
Once you’ve completed your work, ask someone to review it carefully. In situations like this, a thorough check is needed more than ever.
If you handle your emotions intelligently and organise your tasks well, your work will keep rolling without a major hiccup. You’ll probably bounce back faster, and have less reasons to be worried later on.
While preventing mistakes is a great starting point, there are bigger questions to ask:
Should we always try to shake off any negative feelings before launching into work? Could we benefit somehow from feeling sad, frustrated or angry? Can we perhaps harness negative emotions to create something valuable?
When it comes to high performance, as I’ve learnt being a workplace design consultant and strategist, nothing is black and white – absolutely nothing, apart from the need for oxygen.
Psychologists and personal development teachers tend to agree that fully feeling and expressing a spectrum of emotions is critical for working through issues, developing emotional intelligence and maintaining a healthy psyche. However, what I’d like to explore now, is when and how negative emotions can actually help us produce amazing results.
Have you seen the movie Jerry Maguire? In one of the early scenes, Maguire, a sports agent, finds himself in a confronting situation, which prompts him to reflect and realise how he had been absorbed by the unethical culture of his industry. He experiences a breakdown, which he turns into a breakthrough. He works through the night with unprecedented clarity, energy and passion, creating a heartfelt and inspiring mission statement which sets the path for his career.
Facing frustrations and being pushed to the edge can sometimes force us to make critical decisions that we’ve previously avoided, and launch us into enhanced productivity.
In my own practice, I’ve achieved numerous breakthroughs while feeling frustrated. For example, I once received a critique for a research paper I’d written which I felt was unreasonable. In a dedicated attempt to prove my point I came up with a design framework which later became an essential part of my IP.
Creating something valuable
In business, small and large, we’re often exposed to events that may make us feel agitated. I’m particularly triggered by narrow-mindedness, incongruence, and the lack of respect some people show for others’ time. Whenever I see a promising opportunity lost or large amounts of work go to waste because of a communication breakdown, or I find out about one of my clients or prospects inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot … well, I’m not thrilled.
When possible, I first try to deal with the issue directly. But when the problem is beyond my power, or I feel I’m banging my head against a brick wall, I often can’t help but put my thoughts on paper. I know that the problems I’m witnessing are not uncommon, and that some people out there might benefit from hearing about my experiences and knowledge. Interestingly, I’ve written some of my most well-received articles in this not-so-pleasant headspace.
When I find myself in a situation that worries me or pushes my buttons, there’s also probably something I need to learn.
And here is the beauty in this process. In order to get things off my chest in a constructive fashion, I need to think through the issue rationally, from different angles. This always helps me organise my thoughts and draw useful conclusions. And the icing on the cake? Once I feel I’ve got something valuable out of a bad situation, all that fog in my head evaporates. I can finally carry on, fully focused and level-headed.
Negative emotions can work for or against us. The question is whether we are able to use those emotions to move forward, or we allow them to hold us back and perhaps even do some damage.
Anger or frustration, at times, can give us the drive and focus to produce transformative work. Doubt or self-doubt can motivate us to expand our knowledge, ask better questions and explore new avenues with an open mind. Feeling intimidated by seemingly impossible goals or challenges can provoke us to seek innovative ideas and take worthwhile risks. And essentially any painful experience can be that last straw when we say, ‘that’s enough, it’s time to make a change’.
Mastering negative emotions is not easy. But let’s recognise that it’s possible to use them to our advantage. If we pressure ourselves and our team to put on a happy face every day, those emotions will not disappear – they will likely get suppressed and continue sabotaging our work. But if we use them well, they can help us achieve breakthroughs.
If you look at high-performing teams in action, you often see the expression of a variety of emotions. What you won’t see often is peaceful faces with smiles of content.
At work, there should be times for channelling unpleasant feelings into creating positive change, and times for staying level-headed and rational (including the time when we review the piece of work that we’ve produced with a foggy head). When you find the right balance, your work will reflect creativity, professionalism and passion.