Accepting employees’ negative emotions, an imperative as lockdown is being released

By Thierry Nadisic, Professor in Organizational Behavior

knowledge @emlyon
Jun 18, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

How can you smile and efficiently advise a customer when fear is on your mind?

The Covid-19 pandemic, and furthermore the unlocking, widened the gap between the serenity we must display in front of customers and colleagues at work, and what we really feel deep down. In fact, the feelings we are most commonly experiencing at work these days are anxiety, injustice, anger and other negative emotions.

Managers dealing with staff in such situation must learn how to develop new emotional skills. Learning how to welcome negative emotions is the key to reducing their toxic effect and promoting the development of staff and that of the company.

Back at the office

Carine was recently appointed Director of a banking agency of the Crédit Agricole, located in Seine-Saint-Denis. She took office during lockdown. That’s when she found out that all of her team was on leave from work.

She managed the agency by herself, including reception of customers. In parallel, she started building a relationship with her co-workers on leave, remotely. They shared their fear of the virus, as well as how unfair it was, that their colleagues at the headquarters, were allowed to work from home.

They expressed anger against their former manager who requested that they managed customers’ difficulties and discourtesy when they, themselves, felt threatened in this new work situation.

Some felt guilty to leave her by herself in the field. She listened to them. Fifteen days later, all her team was back at the agency and was cooperating in a positive atmosphere.

Since unlocking started, many managers are faced with this physical return to work of their staff. Now, can Carine’s way of dealing with the situation be a source of inspiration for them?

The emotional labor, is work indeed

Beyond the example she set, her co-workers credited her for her ability to accept their negative reactions as legitimate at work. She listened to each and every one without being judgmental, which turned out to ease the tension. All were eager to work together again. Carine has demonstrated skills in what is called emotional labor management.

The emotional labor was defined by an American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, as an activity, requested and remunerated by the company, consisting in reducing the gap between generally positive emotions we are all required to display and the negative emotions we can feel.

Positive affects such as joy, serenity or altruism, are often recommended by the company as they allow to cooperate with colleagues while engaged together, and to generate a service the final client will appreciate.

We expect nurses to express positive emotions such as compassion as they tend to patients. Matt Kingston/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Emotions to be used with colleagues or customers are very much different depending on the job. We don’t expect a man of law or a funeral worker to smile. A Doctor delivering his/her diagnostic may seem more competent if he/she is frowning.

In Germany, an American company found it better suited to take away smiling from the list of behavior rules it was demanding from its employees when dealing with customers. However, more and more companies are still requesting that each employee convey positive emotions: being welcoming and flexible to ease cooperation fluidity, and improve service quality.

Potentially explosive emotions

Le travail émotionnel des salariés dans les services était la cause directe d’une plus forte tendance au burn-out (épuisement professionnel) que dans les autres secteurs. // Photo from Pixabay on Pexels

And yet, many studies showed how emotions felt were often far from those the company requested. A nurse reassures a patient undergoing a panic attack even though she is exhausted from her work day, a cashier must put up with an aggressive customer who is getting closer to him even though he is afraid to be contaminated by the virus, an employee in a logistics center must cooperate with an inside client who is angry due to delayed deliveries.

In all these situations, emotional labor is exhausting. It is even more so, in the service area than in industry or administrative jobs, according to the results of a study carried out as early as 2002 in the United-States.

The latter showed that emotional labor for employees in the service industry directly caused a stronger uptrend of burn-outs (professional exhaustion) than in other business areas. Standards of expression of affects in these companies are indeed more numerous and stricter when it comes to contact with final customers than they are with colleague relationships.

The Covid-19 pandemic reinforced this difficulty. Based on my experience as remote support for field managers in the bank and logistics industry, I noticed that their teams reacted similarly to that of Carine: they are afraid, angry, feeling unjustly treated but also disgusted and guilty, a lot more than usual.

Further reading: Bonuses for caregivers won’t do the trick!

This makes it more difficult for them to carry out their emotional labor. It generates in them additional painful stress. Remote working or taking a leave from work could be a means in several cases to channel negative emotions. Lockdown release and the gradual physical return to work are creating a potentially explosive emotional situation.

Developing emotional skills

Carine managed to alleviate the negative emotions of her co-workers by accepting them. She was able to give them the means to better manage their emotional labor. They in turn were eager to go back to work rather than working from home, and recovered their will to cooperate and serve customers. Managers currently welcoming their released teams are facing the same needs.

According to the World Economic Forum, in 2020, management of human aspects, coordination with others and emotional intelligence now rank among the seven most important managerial skills.

Beyond accepting and listening, other methods allow for employees to return to work under the right conditions:

  • Making way for employees to meet up regularly in a place allowing for constructive hindsight, and where they can share and discuss with one another. When at work, we should all be allowed access to a “backstage” room where we can unwind;
  • Bringing support to your co-workers prior to a work session, just like a manager would when gathering his/her team of consultants to prepare them mentally and emotionally before meeting with a difficult customer;
  • Implementing fast escape procedures for employees involved in conflicting situations, possibilities to fully express their feelings, and then to receive support and go back to work, just like getting back on a horse after being knocked off.

Such methods all use the same mechanisms which proved to be efficient. If hijack survivors can express their anxiety right after landing with an empathetic person, they will not develop post-traumatic stress disorders.

In the Milgram experiment, the investigator (I), leads the subject (S) into inflicting electric shocks to another participant, the learner (L), who is in truth an actor. // Paulr, CC BY-SA

And just like Stanley Milgram demonstrated in the most famous social psychology experiment ever, we even find the strength to carry out the most difficult tasks, like punishing another person, if we can first express how painful it is for us to do so.

As lockdown is being released, employees’ negative emotions which were kept under a bell jar, are now acute. These emotions must be welcomed, that is, openly felt to reduce their harmful power and to retrieve employee’s commitment and customer satisfaction.

The new world will smile on managers who will know how to manage, and actually enjoy doing so, the emotional labor of their staff, while keeping up with their other roles. It will also boil down to corporate priorities, organization and training.

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in french.

Thierry Nadisic contributes to knowledge and practices on how to enrich and improve human relationships. His research addresses issues of fair management and well-being at work. His training and coaching activities emphasize leadership, change, team management, and growth of teams and individual executives. He disseminates his work through conferences, articles in the media, and through co-publication of the French magazine “Psychologie Positive”.

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