Employee Negativity is Like Wildfire: Leaders Need to Address It Before It Spreads

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This article has been modified slightly to apply to trial court leaders. It is a capsulized review of research done by Harvard Assistant Professor Amit Goldenberg regarding how one person’s overwhelmed gripes and emotions (read: judicial officer or non-judicial employee) in an organization can quickly escalate into collective distress, and how leaders can reorient those negative feelings to help people work toward a more positive outcome. For example, if judges and employees are experiencing  increased anxiety due to budget cuts or reduced staffing which impacts their work, court leaders need to pay close attention to those emotions and find ways to reduce their anxiety to help them cope with the situation.

Knowing how to turn down the volume on negative group emotions when they become counterproductive is a critical skill for today’s court leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic showed just how consequential this type of leadership can be, particularly during a crisis.

“The experience of negative emotions at the collective level is often amplified, which may have adverse effects [on an organization],” Goldenberg says. “In many cases, it can lead to suboptimal decisions, to irrational choices or, for example in the case of anxiety, to not waiting long enough for things to happen.”

Are negative emotions contagious?

But what are “collective emotions,” and how can a leader intervene to redirect or reduce the intensity of group feelings that could spread and have harmful effects on the work of an organization?

“A good analogy for the idea of collective emotion is of a forest fire,” Goldenberg explains in a paper recently published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. “When examining a forest fire, one can look at the fire within a single tree and examine how it accumulates the trees over time. But a forest fire can also be evaluated at the forest level: how it is impacted by the forest density and terrain, how it spreads as a function of the wind, and whether its overall intensity is increasing or decreasing.” Thinking about managing collective emotions is like thinking about controlling a fire. You care less about the individual trees and more about whether the fire is picking up or not and at what rate it is spreading, Goldenberg says.

Prior research has shown that people tend to express stronger emotions when they know other people are watching. And seeing people express intense emotions also tends to amplify the emotions of the watchers. Emotions also can spread through interpersonal interactions, a process called emotional contagion. Goldenberg’s past research shows that negative sentiments tend to spread faster than positive ones on social media, particularly when expressed by public figures.

Achieving a sense of calm

On an individual level, an effective strategy for regulating one’s own emotions involves telling ourselves positive narratives to help us cope with challenging situations, a strategy often called reappraisal. Similarly, achieving a sense of calm in a group setting often hinges on a leader’s ability to reconceptualize the circumstances and efficiently communicate those ideas to their groups.

Leaders of large organizations typically can’t provide personalized support to every employee. In these instances, “You need to broadcast information in a way that helps people build narratives that reduce emotions,” Goldenberg says. “In this case, reappraisal is a good strategy.” Just like emotions, reappraisal is also contagious, so leaders don’t necessarily need to communicate their ideas to everyone in the court; rather, they can strategically target people who are central to the organization to spread those ideas and maximize their impact.

How to help people reframe negative experiences

Reappraisalinvolves reinterpreting a negative situation to focus on the prospect of a positive outcome, explains Goldenberg. There are two forms of reappraisal: repurposing and reconstruing.

Repurposing involves reframing the circumstances that are causing the negative emotions in a more positive light, also known as looking at the bright side. One way to think of repurposing is like a mental “making lemonade from lemons” exercise. This strategy works well in crisis situations, Goldenberg says, where the crisis can be framed as an opportunity for learning and improvement. If remote employees felt isolated during the pandemic, for example, a leader using a repurposing strategy might have reminded workers that they had more opportunity to spend time with family at home and control their work schedules.

Repurposing can also be effective for managing interpersonal problems. When personality clashes rise to the level of aggressive behavior, a leader can repurpose those emotions in the pursuit of a more positive outcome. “The leader could say, ‘The fact that people are emotional about their jobs, that also means they care about their jobs,’” Goldenberg says. “’We prefer an organization in which people are passionate about their work over an organization in which people don’t care. We just need to find the right ways to express these emotions and utilize them in a way that helps us to improve and to have a good environment.’”

Reconstruing involves broadening the perceived scope of the situation, either by looking back at a longer history, forward at a longer time horizon, or by contextualizing it more broadly. For instance, this might involve looking at an emotional situation from a bird’s-eye view in a way that reduces the emotional impact.  In the court world, a leader might explain a rise in case filings as a function of the natural ebb and flow of the legal system to ease people’s worries.

In situations of interpersonal assertiveness in the workplace, reconstruing might involve the leader allowing people to vent in the moment while at the same time not making too much of what might be a passing emotion, says Goldenberg. “They might frame it like people’s [expressions of] anger are often fleeting. So that’s how we should think about them, not as things that define our environment that are necessarily going to last forever, but rather as things that come and go naturally. We shouldn’t let it intensify, but we should accept the fact that sometimes people are angry, and we’re a strong-enough organization to deal with these fleeting emotions.”

Reappraisal is a quick solution

Reappraisals can quickly spread throughout a group. Experiments performed by Goldenberg and his colleagues have shown that once a reappraisal narrative is sewn among 25 to 40 percent of the group, it will then spread to the rest.

Unlike other approaches to emotional regulation, such as avoidance, manipulation, or suppression, which are harmful, Goldenberg says collective reappraisal is a helpful way to mitigate difficult situations.

“Reappraisal is a good, quick solution to try to help a collective [group] face a challenge,” says Goldenberg. “The beautiful thing about reappraisal is that when it’s enforced properly, and founded on truth, it’s then caught by the collective group and becomes part of the narrative and part of the story of an organization.”