How to influence emotions to get the best from employees

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There are many strategies employees and managers can use to influence the emotions of the people around them – and this can have a significant impact in the workplace, writes Karen Niven.

The ability to forge effective working relationships is more important than ever, with remote working now normal for many as a result of the pandemic.

As new global leaders step into position and look to strengthen ties with their counterparts, and as shake-ups in Downing Street go to show, relationship-building is a crucial, and often challenging, process. But how can we build relationships with others at work, especially at a distance and during times of uncertainty?

One answer to this question is by influencing others’ feelings. The perception that feelings or emotions are somehow contrary to success in the workplace may be outdated, but it is still relatively commonplace. But there are signs that this “stiff upper lip” mentality is being challenged with the growing focus on mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.

Research has amassed evidence that testifies to the importance of emotions in helping employees achieve most work-related goals. Emotions can shape employee wellbeing and performance, and fuel creativity and innovation, making them a lynchpin for productivity.

It seems, then, that influencing the emotions of others might not just help us form better work relationships; it might also help to increase performance at work. So how can business leaders and employees affect the emotions of their team more effectively?

Strategies for shaping emotions

A lot of the focus on emotions in the workplace to date has been introspective. Sales of self-help books in the UK soared to three million last year – a 20% rise on the year before – with many seeking the counsel of manuals on how to manage their feelings and improve their performance. But less attention has been paid to the ability to strategically shape the feelings of other people and the impact of doing so at work.

It is possible for individuals to influence the feelings of those around them. The way employees respond to situations will often ripple out to affect those around them, and the way business leaders and managers interact with their team will impact relationships.

There are potentially hundreds of strategies that people can adopt to influence others’ feelings. Researchers refer to these strategies as Interpersonal Emotion Regulation (IER). According to studies of IER, there are four main methods for influencing the feelings of others.

Let’s take, for example, a worker who is suffering from stress because of a heavy workload. Perhaps the most logical reaction to this issue, and the first of the IER steps, is for the manager to adopt a problem-focused approach to try to change the worker’s situation, which in turn would help to reduce their anxiety. In other words, the manager might simply reduce a colleague’s workload by offering to take on additional duties.

The second IER response is a cognitive approach. Instead of changing the situation, the manager would try to change how somebody thinks about it. They could do this by using diversion tactics that distract the employee from their situation – by telling jokes, for example. Or they might try to cast the situation in a different light – perhaps reframing the workload as an opportunity to polish skills.

The third approach of IER is socio-affective, otherwise understood as a focus on communicating validation and care within a relationship. In this scenario, the manager wouldn’t try to change the situation or how the employee thinks about it, but just ensure they feel supported. Listening skills and empathy underpin this approach.

The final option is a response-focused approach, which seeks only to change the person’s outward expression of emotion, such as telling the colleague to calm down and not worry.

The most effective strategy depends on what the individual is trying to achieve. But, broadly speaking, strategies that involve problem-solving, cognitive reframing, and socio-affective approaches tend to be the most effective. These are the approaches that not only help to build better relationships, but that also help to bring the best performance out of others.

By contrast, response-focused and cognitive diversion can appear dismissive and have adverse effects. When a customer rings a helpline, for example, they want to feel their complaint is a priority, but if the customer service adviser they are speaking to rattles off a joke, or tells them to calm down and not worry about it, it will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire.

For managers and HR leaders it is important to carve out informal opportunities to understand how others are feeling and protect their wellbeing”

Remote working challenge

Implementing IER strategies is more difficult over Zoom, given there are fewer opportunities for casual, spontaneous conversations among a remote workforce.

For managers and HR leaders it is important to carve out informal opportunities to understand how others are feeling and protect their wellbeing. One strategy is to take a couple of minutes out of the day to ring someone to see how they are – not intrusively, but in a genuine, supportive manner.

In smaller meetings, spending a couple of minutes chatting and showing an interest in others, just as one would while waiting for colleagues to filter into a room, can improve employee relationships. Another example might be to factor IER into feedback and include more praise and validation where appropriate.

With higher levels of isolation among remote workforces, there has never been a more pressing time to try and influence the feelings of others to create a more cohesive workplace.

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Karen Niven

About Karen Niven

Karen Niven is professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School.
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