Emotions At Work

Published: 14th May 2008
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Life is an endless process of probing and searching for satisfying relationships for the purpose of economic and social gain. We constantly try to seduce each other for different reasons. Beyond seduction to satisfy our sexual desires, there are employers seducing employees (and vice versa), salespeople seducing customers, consultants seducing clients, advertisers seducing consumers, writers seducing readers, musicians seducing listeners, and academics, scientists, religious leaders and politicians presenting seductive versions of "the truth".

In marriage, families and committed partnerships, we display our emotions more freely than at work. Learning to cope with them often leads to the most durable and meaningful relationships in our lives. Yet, at work, an "inappropriate" display of emotion can land a person in deep trouble, even result in their sacking or trigger widespread upheaval in the office. It has made me question whether our attitude to emotions is actually helping business or hurting it.

My own interest is the way emotion and intimacy drives the way we govern each other and to organise ourselves into social groups. By looking at conversations, it is possible to discover that productive relationships, generally, are far more equitable than we realise. Only when one party wants to punish the other do relationships change dramatically. When hostility is triggered, one party cuts off or alters the way they communicate. Sometimes they start shaping situations so they can hurt those who they think have hurt them. When this happens, we discover how power is organised, because one party is usually able to punish "the other" more completely and effectively than the other way around.

The desire to punish is rooted in emotional hurt. In our closest relationships we learn many things: how to let others win as a way of developing their confidence; how to win sometimes so that others learn to deal with the emotions aroused by losing. Learning to establish a balance between winning and losing, and teaching others how to cope with winning and losing, is an experience that is quite different from the "win, win, win" mentality that now pervades our society.

Winning is over-rated. Management researchers have long noted the cycle of rapid business success followed by rapid business failure. The same might be asserted about military 'success' in places like Vietnam and Iraq. Quick success breeds overconfidence and arrogance. Moreover, when winning and the pursuit of ideological supremacy becomes more important than supporting the development of human life, we start to undermine the very people who contribute to our own survival. Sometimes we mindlessly hurt without pause to consider the long-term consequences, then compound the problems by getting angry when others react to our own insensitivity. Forgiveness is a quality much needed, but rarely found, in governmental thinking, despite the competitive advantage to be gained through its adoption (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2005).

The Growing Interest in Emotions At Work

Interest in emotion was fuelled by the runaway success of Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1995) . As is the case with many popular psychology books, Goleman tends to view emotion as a product of genetic inheritance and upbringing. Branches of academia, such as cognitive (Aronson, 2003) and evolutionary psychology (Buss, 1994), also accept this presumption to understand personality'.

In the social sciences (including business studies) the seminal works on emotion take a different view. In Fineman's writings (2000), for example, emotion is seen as a outcome of group life, something that is triggered by changes in our social status and relationships that create 'cognitive dissonance' (Festinger, 1957). This theme has been picked up by some psychiatrists, such as William Glasser in Choice Theory. Glasser (1998) views emotional disturbances as 'normal in the circumstances' when a person's relationship aspirations are seriously disrupted by real world events. By viewing emotion as 'normal', his patients are taught to control their choices and accept those made by others as outside their control (if they seriously wish to maintain rather than destroy their relationships).

This focus on relationship aspirations is key in management research into emotion. When people are asked to talk about emotions at work, they do not (unless prompted by researchers or managers) talk about "job satisfaction" or a desire for "self-fulfilment". Instead they talk about their relationships with work colleagues, family and friends. What matters, therefore, is the situation in the here and now, not what happened 10 or 20 years ago. The past may influence the way a person understands and deals with the present, but the problem to be solved, the feelings that are being experienced, are in the present situation and not simply a product of personality.

Arlene Hochschild (1998) has documented another feature of emotional life at work - the way we are encouraged to adopt emotions when we interact with work colleagues, managers, clients, customers and suppliers. Her concepts link back to Daniel Goleman but have a different slant. What Goleman calls "emotional intelligence" Hochschild regards as "emotional labour". Unlike Goleman, who argues that emotional intelligence is beneficial to us as human beings, Hochschild brings out another aspect. Constantly pretending or withholding emotions undermines our sense of self, affects our physical health and undermines our capacity to act morally.

My own contribution has been to demonstrate scientifically how company governance practices, and the development of social structures at work, are partly rooted in the way we handle intimacy and emotionality (Ridley-Duff, 2005). Whether in business or politics, in love triangles or large families, we are drawn to those who trigger positive emotions in us, and we consider them more desirable and trustworthy. The way people handle this is an important dimension of leadership but it is rarely discussed as a management topic.

Another couple who confront the issue of intimacy are Andrew and Nada Kakabadse (Kakabadse and Kakabadse, 2004). They found that intimacy at work is a common experience, and the benefits are astonishingly enduring, often lasting a life-time. In their conclusions, the Kakabadses talk of a need for people at work, particularly managers, to develop greater sensitivity so that they can handle intimacy and emotionality more effectively. This recommendation was underpinned by a survey finding that only 11% of people at work think relationship issues are handled well, and that only 2% believe that policy-based approaches to sexual conflict make a positive contribution.

Current Issues

The recent legislative attempts to bring about improvements in behaviour by making employers responsible for equality have the potential - in my eyes - to make matters worse. Does it make sense to make managers legally responsible for preventing the accidental upset of people at work? A person who accidentally upsets another can now be sacked if it can be shown that the effect of their behaviour was intimidating (even if unintended). Managers can be found guilty of failing to prevent a hostile environment if they do not remove a person who accidentally causes another distress. A person's motive may be to show care for another person or to debate discrimination issues affecting their own workplace, or just a straightforward positive response to the other's obvious interest. The result of legislative change is that we are developing a culture that frustrates the pursuit of equality by outlawing the emotionality of intimacy and debate. In effect, we are knowingly or unknowingly making democracy illegal.

At the same time, our world is increasingly driven by intolerance. In both US and UK politics, we see world leaders ordering troops into Iraq justified, not on the basis of credible evidence of a threat to any nation, but to assuage the fears and suspicions of our leaders. Riots erupt the world over after publication of a blasphemous cartoon just as "democracy" is established in Iraq (Williams and Born, 2006). In the UK, members of religious minorities fear prosecution for incitement to terrorism (BBC, 2004) for publicly debating how to respond to their own government bombing family members in other countries, even when a majority of citizens oppose the war (Walker, 2007). We see Labour Party stewards ejecting an pensioner-age party member for holding a political leader to account at a "democratic" conference and then using anti-terror laws to prevent his further participation (BBC, 2005). At work, the result of "tightening up" sexual discrimination legislation is that people can be demoted or sacked for trying to debate issues of sex discrimination, including something as trivial as choosing not to wear a tie (Channel Five, 2005).

Emotions, our own and others, have had a raw deal in the credibility stakes in both personal and professional worlds for around 200 years. Science itself is beginning to establish how emotions underpin our intelligence. We have an innate ability to be sensitive, and this sensitivity allows us to discovers ways of thinking that help us to survive. While the current wave of intolerance is rooted in a global fear about our collective survival, the fear is rational even if the reactions to it are not.

As a social scientist, I do not believe anyone can be completely objective. Even maths - often cited as the purest of sciences - is a symbolic language. It is an invention by human beings to represent the world as mathematicians see it. The bias lies not in its inability to precisely depict what is observed (it does this rather well) but in the purposes behind particular observations and the way we report them. The best way forward, therefore, is not just to count and measure occurences of emotion. Instead, we need to interpret the causes, meanings and impacts and learn to make measured responses in the best traditions of a society that claims to assert itself as a democracy.

It is timely to consider how we will benefit by being sensitive to our own and others' emotions as well as their words. This is a time to develop our capacity for tolerance. Secondly, I argue that during conflict, the priority is to understand the source of emotion - both in ourselves and others rather than stamp it out through authoritarian behaviour, discipline, punishment and exclusion. If we fail to embrace the challenge of understanding our feelings, we adopt alternative behaviours that increase anger and violence. The result, as with every intolerant society in history, is the growth of tyranny and the death of democracy.

Based on Ridley-Duff, R. J. (2007) Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy: Alternative Perspectives on Organisation Behaviour, Bracknell: Men's Hour Books, Introduction (pp. vi-xi).


Aronson, E. (2003) The Social Animal, Ninth Edition , New York: Worth Publishers.

BBC (2004), "Muslim fear amid terror arrests", BBC News, 9th August 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3549050.stm

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Clutterbuck, D., Megginson, D (2005) Making coaching work: Creating a coaching culture, London, CIPD.

Channel Five (2005) "What are Men For?", Don't Get Me Started, 23 rd August 2005. Scripted and presented by Michael Buerk.

Festinger, L. (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Hochschild, A. R. (1998) "Sociology of emotion as a way of seeing" in G. Bendelow and S. J. Williams (eds) Emotions in Social Life, London: Routelege.

Kakabadse, A., Kakabadse, N. (2004) Intimacy: International Survey of the Sex Lives of People at Work, Palgrave.

Ridley-Duff, R. J. (2005) Communitarian Perspectives on Corporate Governance, Sheffield Hallam University.

Ridley-Duff, R. J. (2007) Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy: Alternative Perspectives on Organisation Behaviour, Bracknell: Men's Hour Books.

Walker, P. (2007) "60% think Iraq war is wrong, poll shows", Guardian.co.uk, 20th March 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/mar/20/iraq.iraq

Williams, B. & Born, M. (2006), "Islam cartoon sparks worldwide protests", Daily Mail, 3rd February 2006, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=375997


Dr Rory Ridley-Duff is Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organisation Behaviour at Sheffield Hallam University. After winning a Hallam PhD Studentship, he undertook research into the impact of gender on corporate governance practices. His second book, Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy publishes his most important findings in a readable, accessible writing style. His next book is Understanding Social Enterprise: Theory and Practice for Sage Publications.

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