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Emotions at Work: Unpleasant Reactions

This month we are exploring emotions in the workplace and what we can or should do when they emerge. Last week we discussed some key assumptions that will be important to understand as we continue this exploration. This week we are going to discuss how emotions can impact your decision-making and ability to make productive responses and choices in the workplace.

First of all, you should know I am not a neurobiologist or an expert in the physiological responses emotions can produce, so I won’t go into what I can’t speak to on this topic. However, emotions do impact our behaviors, communications and decision-making. We are going to focus on unpleasant emotions, as these are the ones that typically impact us in ways that lead us to unproductive or unprofessional behaviors or communications. Most commonly, when we are feeling an unpleasant emotion, it is often tied to a need that is missing, unmet or violated in some capacity.

Underneath Emotions are Needs

For example, let’s say I am feeling angry. Likely, that anger is coming from somewhere. Let’s say my time off request was denied, or my partner and I had a fight this morning before work. Both scenarios, in fact, have happened to me in the past and perhaps you can identify with them as well. Why am I angry from these events?

In the time off request example, I had my brother coming into town and was really looking forward to spending some time with him. So, my anger stems from me not being able to meet my need of spending time with family. In the morning fight example, I have a need for love and affection with my partner and that was unmet or violated in the argument. In either scenario (and in most scenarios where we are experiencing an unpleasant emotion) there are driving forces leading us to that emotion, which is often directly tied to a human need.

Think back to a time that you felt an unpleasant emotion at work.

  • What emotion was it?
  • What was the action, behavior, situation or communication that produced that feeling?
  • What need of yours did that event trigger or violate for you?

Cortisol and Adrenaline

When our needs are unmet or violated, our bodies often have a stress response that releases a small amount of cortisol and adrenaline into our systems. These are the hormones and neurochemicals responsible in a fight/flight/freeze response. As cortisol and adrenaline increase in our system, they redirect our energy to our muscular and vascular systems to prepare our bodies for a fight/flight/freeze response where we might need more strength and endurance.

This is why when you are stressed you may clench your jaw, feel tense, be jittery, feel your face get flushed or your heart start to race. Our body redirects the energy from non-essential functions. For example, our hair or toenails growing is not important in a fight/flight/freeze response situation, therefore these non-essential systems are inhibited. This includes our immune systems. This is why you are more likely to get sick when you are stressed! On top of that, your body redirects energy from your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your ability to be rational, make decisions, be empathetic, be insightful and to be self-aware (among other things). Do you think these functions are important in managing your emotions in the workplace? Yes, they are!

When our access to our prefrontal cortex is inhibited, we often do things and say things that are unproductive or unprofessional, or perhaps things that we regret and wouldn’t have done if we were more level-headed in the moment.

Misdirected Responses

It is important to recognize that when we are having an emotional experience caused from an unmet or violated need, we sometimes redirect those unproductive responses to innocent bystanders. If my partner and I get into an argument before work, I am more likely to be unprofessional or unproductive in my actions and communications at work because I am coming to work with a higher level of cortisol and adrenaline in my system and thus inhibited access to my prefrontal cortex. I am more likely to perceive even benign actions from others as possible threats to my needs. This makes it more likely that I will be triggered in the workplace by things that might not normally bother me. Similarly, if I have an unmet or violated need in a conversation with my supervisor about vacation time, I am more likely to be unproductive in my actions and communications in my next meeting with my colleagues.

It is important for us to be mindful of where our emotions are coming from and address them before we react unproductively or unprofessionally toward the source or innocent bystanders. Next week, we will explore how to identify the source of our unmet or violated needs and some self-intervention strategies to keep us level-headed and professional at work.

Luke Wiesner is the UC Merced Conflict Resolution Coach , a private resource for staff members who are interested in having a partner to support workplace challenges or conflicts. This service is voluntary, and you can partner with the coach by yourself or with fellow university employees.