I have recently observed and heard a number of senior leaders (and senior OD and HR professionals) seeking only positive emotions in the workplace from their employees.  Furthermore, these same organisations have a view that the experience of negative emotion is ‘bad’ and should be avoided. I am deeply concerned by this growing trend and share below not only the compelling evidence and research but also explain why negative emotions are necessary for success.

Reflect on your greatest personal achievement to date.  Then reflect on your emotional experiences prior to this greatest achievement.  Did you feel any of the following emotions: anxiety, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, worry and /or pressurised?

If we reflected on any of the greatest achievements of individuals, teams or organisations across history, every one of the greatest achievements would have a precursor of negative emotions.  The first man on the moon would have had a multitude of negative emotions weeks, days, hours and minutes prior to the actual first step.  The winning of a gold medal at an Olympics games would have a multitude of negative emotions prior to crossing the finish line first.

To experience the emotion of ‘Achievement’ we need to first experience ‘Negative Emotions’.  If we wish to provide our employees with a sense of achievement, we then also need to be comfortable invoking appropriate levels of negative emotions (in a constructive way) in our staff.

Let’s explore this idea in a little more detail:

Anxiety: Drives better Safety and Better Performance

Question: Which is a safer place to work –

  1. A work place where people ‘feel safe’ OR
  2. A work place where people ‘feel unsafe’?

The Answer: Where people ‘feel unsafe’.  Why? When I feel unsafe I am more likely to be consciously aware, more likely to be on my toes, and less likely to be complacent.

An appropriate level of anxiety is critical for our work force to remain safe.  Jim Collins refers to ‘Productive Paranoia’, which is a constant vigilance to what could go wrong.  To cultivate an outstanding safety culture and safety performance we need to be also comfortable generating the negative emotions of ‘anxiety’ about theirs and others safety in the workforce. 

Obviously we want to avoid levels of anxiety that are inappropriate or generate performance impairment, which highlights the need to get the ‘right’ level of anxiety.

We also need to have a level of anxiety (or Productive Paranoia) as senior leaders and executive teams in organisations.  This level of anxiety brings about the burning question of “could we be doing anything better than we currently are?” Which in turn leads to a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

Frustration: Drives Improvement and Innovation

Frustration is a significantly under-rated emotion.  We know from child development theory that the experience of frustration in infants and toddlers is critical for growth and development.  Vygotsky refers to the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ which occurs when a child is challenged beyond what they believe they are capable of successfully doing.  It is in this zone of proximal development where we experience frustration, which stimulates the child to experiment with different ways of completing the task. With the appropriate support (and appropriate level and time of frustration) the child then successfully completes the task, followed very shortly by a highly impactful positive emotion of achievement.

One of the critical developmental tasks of a young child is to develop ‘Frustration Tolerance’.  Frustration tolerance is the ability of the child to tolerate a level of frustration to achieve a task.  The greater the tolerance of frustration, the greater the perseverance observed in the child to work through complexities to successfully complete the task.  The only way to develop a frustration tolerance is to expose the child to frustration.

In the work place the leaders have a responsibility to develop a ‘frustration tolerance’ in their people by allowing them to experience increasing levels of frustration, and support them to work through the frustration to success.

We also know that the experience of frustration stimulates the thinking for improvement and innovation.  Without experiencing frustration we would not identify the need to improve.  Therefore, if an organisation wishes to develop a culture of innovation, they also need to stimulate frustration.

Disappointment and Embarrassment: Drives Self-awareness and Accountability

Disappointment and embarrassment are an outcome of a realisation that we have not delivered to expectation.  If this realisation is followed by the courage to take full ownership of the respective responsibility, then one is able to shift into a head space that allows for full self-awareness.  Having taking full responsibility for one’s action, and honestly acknowledging one’s shortcomings, one is able to identify very specifically the areas for improvement and actively work on improving these areas.  Essentially, ultimate success and high performance requires disappointment and embarrassment to feed the engine of growth and improvement.

The avoidance of disappointment and embarrassment typically involves some form of either ignoring, denying, blaming of justifying (Mark Samuel’s Victim Loop).  While this short-term avoidance of the negative emotion brings some immediate relief, the impact of this avoidance as a long-term strategy is significant and results in long-term negative emotions and thinking.

The key to managing disappointment and embarrassment in a constructive manner are the attributes of humility, courage and integrity.  A further critical skill and disciplined practice is being able to proactively ‘let go’ and ‘move on’ without which one can be sucked into resentment, self-loathing and bitterness. 

Negative Emotion: Drives Self-esteem, Resilience & Self-Efficacy

While it seems counter-intuitive, being resilient requires us to experience negative emotion.  To be resilient we need to take responsibility, to acknowledge mistakes, and own our decisions and choices.  Sometimes in life we make bad decisions and mistakes.  When we own these, we empower ourselves to improve.  Without working through the negative emotion associated with mistakes we never improve.

Let’s embrace negative emotions rather than avoid the emotion, take responsibility and empower ourselves to focus forward and improve.

The next time you experience negative emotion, consider that you may actually have an opportunity to grow and improve.  Embrace the emotion and the situation, focus on what you can control, and choose to put your energy and effort into the opportunity. 

Finally, the definition of ‘Perseverance’ is ‘persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success’. In other words, we need to be comfortable with negative emotion to achieve success.  If you have children, then start teaching them now about how to become comfortable with negative emotion.  If you are a leader, then support your people through the negative emotions associated with challenge and growth.  If you do this then you will be cultivating success.

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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