What Workers Want

Bosses should fix problems, not dispel dissatisfaction, research finds
Thursday, February 4, 2016

When organizations merge, restructure or face crises, employee emotions can run rampant.

Leaders often use “interpersonal emotion management” strategies to influence followers’ feelings of fear, anger and grief.

Not all strategies are created equal, however.

Assistant Professor Michele Williams and her research colleagues find that problem-focused emotion management strategies correlate with higher quality boss-employee relationships, along with higher levels of job satisfaction and helping behavior in the workplace.

On the other hand, emotion-focused strategies led to negative relationships, and lower levels of job satisfaction and helping behavior in the workplace, according to findings from surveys of more than 400 leaders and followers.

In short: problem-focused emotion management strategies appear to help followers believe their leader cares about them; emotion focused strategies signal their leader “does not care enough to invest time and resources” in alleviating causes of workers’ negative emotions.

Problem-focused strategies try to address underlying causes of negative emotions, Williams explained. An example would be reducing a stressed employee’s workload.

A boss could also “put situations in perspective,” and reframe a perceived failure as being an important step to future success, Williams said.

Emotion-focused strategies ask employees to suppress or reduce emotional behavior, but do not address the underlying cause.

For instance, a leader might distract an employee with a joke or direct an employee to “relax” and “take it in stride,” instead of addressing the source of the emotion.

However, employees expect bosses be concerned about and help alleviate workplace problems, the researchers said.

So, strategies directed at the problem allow leaders to meet expectations, improving the leader-member relationship, according to their paper, published this month in “The Leadership Quarterly.”

“The role of leader emotion management in leader-member exchange and follower outcomes” was written by Williams, Laura M. Little of the University of Georgia and Janaki Gooty of the University of North Carolina.Learn more about Williams’s research on workplace interactions at https://twitter.com/MicheleWilliamz.