16 November 2018

Let’s get emotional at work

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Laugh it off: Research shows how laughter contributes to a better working environment and more productive teams.

The ability to regulate your emotions at work is an invaluable skill. Appropriate emotional responses can decrease the tension in a difficult workplace situation, and therefore improve effectiveness.

“Emotional intelligence is one of the most popular topics in leadership, management and organisational behaviour,” says Dr Nick Wang from the ANU Research School of Management, who studies emotions in an organisational context.

Nick is quick to point out that emotional intelligence in the workplace is very different to the self-help industry where career consultants sometimes push the latest fad, often with the overpromise of personal growth, career progression and a bigger salary.

“What differentiates my work from self-help is this evidence side of things,” says Nick.

So what does the evidence tell us about emotional intelligence in the workplace?

“What we are seeing is that emotionally intelligent people often know how information needs to be communicated,” says Nick.

“When sharing critical information, they’re skilled at also communicating a meta-message that is- ‘we’re part of a team, I’m not saying this to put you down, and I’m not saying this because I’m better than you’. That is, emotionally intelligent teams are able to share information in a socially appropriate and acceptable manner.”

Nick led a study that determined emotionally intelligent teams use laughter as a social lubricant that creates psychological safety for teams to discuss and utilize divergent perspective and ideas, which is critical to team success. That means, laughter is used to enhance work, to increase information sharing, and to make critical information easier to accept without creating team conflict.

On the flipside, laughter also leads to a decrease in performance when it is not used to facilitate the discussion of task information.

“We found that when teams laugh together frequently, they don’t always perform well. This is because laughter in some teams are not expressed to facilitate work but to replace work altogether. When teams are joking around instead of focusing on how to get the best information out there, their performance decreases.

“The emotionally intelligent teams seem to use laughter in a very different way where they use laughter as a social lubricant. Laughter here is not to create a timeout, but to make certain critical information more socially appropriate to communicate.”

Nick argues that in order to be competitive and get things done in the workplace, you have to understand how to develop an emotional bond in a way that facilitates task performance.

“To be an effective manager you need to be able to work with people; to be able to interact with your customers, clients, and with each other. All these things are embedded in a social context where emotions matter.”

Dr Nick Wang is an Associate Professor at the ANU Research School of Management. For information on studying at ANU, email: national.cbe@anu.edu.au

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