Anger at Work: How Negative Emotions Cloud Judgment

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Wharton’s Maurice Schweitzer and Georgetown’s Jeremy Yip discuss their research on the effect of anger on perspective-taking.

Anger is a particularly negative emotion in the workplace. It can rub off on managers, subordinates or co-workers, making them keep their distance or walk on eggshells around the person who is upset. New research from Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, and Jeremy Yip, management professor at Georgetown University, shows that being angry at work can create even more significant problems. Their research — based on six experiments — reveals that angry people often lose the ability to see problems from another point of view, which can hamper efforts to resolve conflict. Schweitzer and Yip spoke to Knowledge@Wharton about their paper, “Losing Your Temper and Your Perspective: Anger Reduces Perspective-Taking,” which was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start with the title of your paper, specifically the term perspective-taking. Can you define that?

Jeremy Yip: Perspective-taking is a cognitive process that involves recognizing differences and making inferences about how others view a situation. When people engage in perspective-taking, they often form mental representations of a particular situation for themselves and for others. That overlap enables people to be able to bridge differences of perceptions, interests and backgrounds.

Perspective-taking is closely tied to conflict, in that poor perspective-taking is often associated with conflict. In this paper, we explore an emotion that’s commonly associated with conflict — anger. We examine whether anger may actually impair perspective-taking and potentially fuel conflict.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the paper, you talk about incidental anger and integral anger. What is the difference between the two?

Maurice Schweitzer: Incidental anger is anger that might bleed over from one case into another. Imagine you have an argument with your spouse, and then you go into an important meeting at work. Those two cases could be completely unrelated, but that anger might carry over and still influence the way you behave and act in that second situation. In many of our studies, we look at incidental anger with some more conservative tests that just look at that pure emotion. What we consistently find is that the emotions we have from one setting really do carry over to unrelated settings.

In contrast, integral anger is anger that I feel toward that same person or about that same issue that bleeds over from one case to another. In that case, it might be quite relevant. It could be that I’m upset with a co-worker, and I’m dealing with that co-worker in a second case. That emotion that I’m feeling could be informative and relevant in terms of how I’m dealing with that person.

When we think about conflict settings, what we’re showing is that even incidental anger — anger from an unrelated source — can really impair perspective-taking. It’s certainly the case that integral anger — anger I feel about a particular situation or person — is going to influence how I deal with that same situation or person.

“What we’re finding is that when people feel angry, they’re collapsing in on themselves. They become far more egocentric.” –Maurice Schweitzer

Knowledge@Wharton: Why does anger impact perspective-taking in these cases?

Yip: It was something that we thought very carefully and deeply about — what might explain why anger diminishes perspective-taking? In our work, we found that when people feel angry, they experience elevated levels of arousal, and that interferes with their ability to think carefully and deliberately, which reduces perspective-taking. We can look at emotions according to valence and magnitude, and what we’re finding here is that anger is a negative-valence, high-arousal emotion.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you define valence in this context?

Yip: Valence refers to whether it’s positive or negative. In this case, anger is a negative emotion that also tends to be higher in terms of energy or arousal. When people feel or experience greater arousal, they tend to be more likely to rely on heuristics. What’s valuable about our work is that we were also able to shed some insight into the puzzle about how emotions influence cognition. Prior work has found that when people feel happy, they tend to exhibit impaired perspective-taking. Similarly, when people are anxious, they tend to struggle with perspective-taking. Our work finds that when people feel angry, they tend to struggle with their perspective-taking. And what ties this all together is the role of arousal.

Schweitzer: Essentially, what we’re finding is that when people feel angry, they’re collapsing in on themselves. They become far more egocentric. In other work Jeremy and I have done together, we’re finding that anger is this high-arousal emotion. My heart’s beating fast. I’m on high alert. We’re focusing in on ourselves and more likely to think about our own interests, and it gets in the way of trying to think about things from somebody else’s perspective. We’re trying to disentangle what we know in our heads from how other people are seeing and experiencing things. And it’s really hard to make that mental leap, to really put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. Perspective-taking requires this cognitive effort, and we’re finding that the emotions we feel, this anger that we feel, is impairing that process.

Knowledge@Wharton: It leads to what you call conflict spirals. Can you explain that?

Schweitzer: Imagine your neighbor’s dog bit a member of your family. You might be angry about that. Anger is a common theme in many conflict situations. What we’re finding is that anger harms perspective-taking, which is exactly the kind of skill you might need to try to resolve a conflict. Whether it’s at work or at home, if you’re feeling anger within a conflict situation, it might make it even harder to resolve that.

Imagine we’re going to court. If I can’t take the other side’s perspective, I might be sure that the judge is going to rule in my favor. Now I’m going to be less likely to accept any overtures to try to settle before we go to court. I’m going to escalate this conflict.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’m curious to know how you would study an emotion like anger in a lab setting. Can you explain a couple of the experiments that you did?

“The important point here is to cultivate an awareness of our emotions and pinpoint the sources of them, so we can judge whether they are relevant to the social situation at hand.” –Jeremy Yip

Yip: We conducted six experiments in the lab. Our basic approach to these experiments was that we would induce the emotion. We used many different ways to induce emotion. For example, we provided people with negative feedback, or we had them watch a video in which an injustice occurred, or we had them recall a time that they felt most angry and right about it. They then completed measures of perspective-taking. And here’s where we were able to introduce some new ways of assessing perspective-taking.

In particular, we assessed perspective-taking through a scheduling task. We told participants that they needed to write an email to arrange a meeting time with a very important client who was based in California, which was three hours behind their current Eastern time zone. We looked at whether they wrote their messages using meeting times that were in Eastern time or in Pacific time. For those who wrote in Eastern time, that reflected egocentrism. On the other hand, if they wrote it in Pacific time, that reflected perspective-taking. What we found was that participants who felt angry consistently tended to refer to their own egocentric time zone — Eastern time.

We also assess perspective-taking using other measures, where we present a number that can look like a 16 from one vantage point, or a 91 from another vantage point. We also asked them questions about who would they side with in terms of an insurance case, when attributing blame. So, there are a number of different ways that we induce anger, and a number of different ways we assess perspective-taking.

Knowledge@Wharton: We know that anger reduces perspective-taking, so what can employees and managers do when anger arises?

Schweitzer: The first thing to recognize is that perspective-taking is always an effortful and challenging process. It’s not something we do well naturally, and in any strategic decision, any collaborative decision, we need to work at perspective-taking.

The first thing I would say is to be mindful of how important and challenging perspective-taking is. The second thing, informed by our work, is to recognize that how we feel can influence our ability to take perspective. When we feel anger in particular, as well as any other high-arousal emotion, we should recognize that our ability to think about other people’s perspectives is diminished. We’re more likely to think egocentrically, and our tendency to focus in on ourselves becomes exacerbated by the high-arousal emotion of anger or other related emotions. So, we’ve got to check our emotions, be mindful of that, and recognize that we’re going to be more likely to adopt an egocentric perspective.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there specific techniques that either a worker or a manager can use when these situations arise?

Yip: In our research, we examined both incidental and integral anger, and we were able to gain insight on how people can manage incidental anger in relation to their perspective-taking. What we found was that when people are made aware about the source of their incidental anger, and they are able to infer that their anger is irrelevant to their particular social situation, they are able to block the effects of anger and exhibit more perspective-taking.

The important point here is to cultivate an awareness of our emotions and pinpoint the sources of them, so we can judge whether they are relevant or irrelevant to the social situation at hand.

“A lot of emotion conveys information. If you have an employee who’s angry about something, that helps guide attention to that issue.” –Maurice Schweitzer

Knowledge@Wharton: Based on your research, would this work as well in the case of integral anger? For instance, if I’m getting into a heated argument with someone, is it useful to say, “I’m getting angry,” or “You seem to be getting angry about this?” In the case of integral anger, I can see where it might cause a spiral to go further. Do you think that that’s true?

Schweitzer: I think that it is, so we have to be careful. When we think about integral anger, the anger could be integral with the same person, or it could be about the same situation, or both. When we now vent about those issues, they could actually make us angrier. So, we have to be careful.

On the other hand, in general, the more we can be cognizant of our emotions, the more aware we are of incidental anger. I know that I’m angry about what my boss said to me at work, and now I come home and recognize the source of my anger, so I’m less likely to have that bleed into my interactions at home.

Even when the sources are integral, recognizing what’s making us angry can help us deal with that anger and recognize explicitly that this emotion is likely to influence our cognition.

Knowledge@Wharton: Years ago, the guideline for most workplaces was, “Check your baggage at the door. Work is work. Don’t bring your problems here.” Now it seems like the pendulum is swinging the other way and we are more inclined to acknowledge the power of emotion at work. How do you think that’s going to reshape management practice?

Yip: I think managers need to be aware of their own emotions and how they can affect their behavior, but they also want to be attuned to the emotional effects of their communication. When they use incendiary words — whether it is directed at people within their own workplace or outside competitors — there’s a chance that that may elicit anger among their audience of workers. And that can have significant effects and consequences for how individuals behave towards one another, as well as how they behave towards the leader. I think realizing this connection or this link between emotion and cognition is very important for managers to pay attention to.

Schweitzer: I think emotion is really integral to getting our work done. A lot of emotion conveys information. If you have an employee who’s angry about something, that helps guide attention to that issue. Maybe they’re upset because something isn’t working well, and we should be paying more attention to that problem.

In the workplace, the emotions that we express can help us accomplish different kinds of tasks. Sometimes anger can be very motivating. We’re upset about some injustice, and we’re now motivated to address it. Or the use of positive emotions can help us either bond together or serve a client or help us be excited when we sell a product. But the emotions that we have are really part of us. Rather than trying to check our emotions at the door and assume that we’re unemotional throughout the full day, [we need] to recognize that there’s information here, and that there’s use for these emotions that we feel.

“Managers need to be aware of their own emotions and how they can affect their behavior, but they also want to be attuned to the emotional effects of their communication.” –Jeremy Yip

Knowledge@Wharton: If managers are validating or acknowledging emotion in the workplace, could it get to a point where all we’re talking about are our feelings and the work’s not getting done? Is there a balance that needs to be found within that?

Schweitzer: Yes, I’d say absolutely. Clearly, we don’t want unregulated emotions running wild. Instead, we need to be careful about how we regulate our emotions. I think the first step is just recognizing that we do feel these emotions, and if we can attribute where that emotion is coming from — how do I feel and why do I feel that way — that’s going to take us a pretty long way.

The next step is going to be figure out, how do I change my emotions? It could be that I’m feeling upset about an interaction I had with a co-worker or a colleague. I have to make an important strategic decision. I know that if I go for a walk or I go to the gym or I talk to my other friend down the hall, I’m going to clear my head in a way that’s going to allow me to think differently about this decision. I think it’s that recognition — to recognize how we feel, why we feel that way — and how we can change how we feel that can really help us make much, much better decisions and improve our interactions at work.

Knowledge@Wharton: What kinds of questions did this research raise about anger that you’d like to explore next?

Yip: We became interested in exploring the role that anger may play within a team context. We currently have ongoing work that explores another topic of research that we’ve collaborated on: trash-talking. When leaders trash-talk, is there a functional benefit to doing so within groups? Our evidence suggests that when in-group members witness a trash-talking leader, that trash-talking can build cohesion and identification with their organization. It really depends on what this aggressive, incendiary language is targeted at. When it’s targeted outside of a particular organization or in-group, it may actually have functional benefits. The anger that is elicited may essentially serve as a call to action for a group of people to coalesce around a particular cause and pursue it.

Schweitzer: We’ve done some related work on anger and disgust and sadness and happiness, to think about the broader set of emotions. Understanding how we think about emotions — the interplay of the emotions that you’re expressing with thinking and cognition — are all areas that we’re eager to explore.

I think this trash-talking work is particularly interesting. We don’t always behave in a civil way with each other. It’s easy to trigger emotions in other people, and sometimes we might do it inadvertently in ways that cause other people to act in ways that surprise us. But in hindsight, it probably shouldn’t.

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