Exploring the Effects of Emotions on Employees

When retailers think about emotions in their stores, they’re usually thinking about how to make customers happy. But during a panel of the Emotional Connections in Retailing conference held on campus on May 22, the subject was the exact opposite. Researchers from Wharton and universities around the world presented their work on the effect that negative emotions can have on employees.

Anat Rafaeli, professor of organizational behavior at the Technion, Israel’s “INSEAD of technology,” described her research on hostility in the workplace—an emotion that anyone who has worked in a customer service oriented position is all too familiar with. While outbursts are usually rare among customers, Rafaeli said, minor behaviors of an irritated customer can affect an employee most. Everything from pacing to sarcasm can create an air of hostility that will have a negative effect on productivity and sap employee energy.

Amir Erez from the University of Florida discussed rudeness—a more toned-down version of hostility—and the ways it can influence our ability to focus or remember details. In studies conducted at hospitals, Erez found that rudeness has a direct effect on cognition. Doctors who dealt with rude patients were more likely to make unintentional medical errors. Even in teams, Erez found, “one bad apple creates a contagion effect,” poisoning the rest of the group.

Twenty portrait of a woman with differnet expressions

Teamwork—an important part in any workforce—was also a major topic of discussion at the conference. Yochi Cohen Charash of Baruch College focused on how envy is created in the workplace and what managers can do to dispel it. Envious employees are looking for one thing: respect. Ignoring the problem can only make it worse, said Charash.

“Reduce gaps between the envious person and the other,” she advised, even if that means creating a physical separation between jealous co-workers. “Closeness leads to increased envy.”

Two Wharton alumni wrapped up the panel. Shimul Melwani, WG’08, GrW’12, now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been studying the role gossip plays in the workplace. Most of us think of gossip as something negative, but it can be an efficient way for teams to bond and exchange information due to the high levels of trust that gossiping requires, he said. While gossip can be detrimental to overall workplace morale, in small doses it can make smaller teams more productive and cohesive.

Last was Andrew Knight, WG’06, GrW’09. The Olin Business School assistant professor explained how energy levels affect groups. By studying stress levels and heart rates during a business plan competition, Knight found that teams whose energy levels were the most in sync during their 10-minute presentations were the most likely to succeed.

Knight’s research into the correlations could lead to developments in how retail teams deal with the problems, tasks and obstacles they face every day.

Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center hosted the conference. The faculty organizers were marketing professor Barbara Kahn, the Patty and Jay H. Baker Professor and director of the Baker Retailing Center; Sigal Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management; and Patti Williams, the Ira A. Lipman Associate Professor of Marketing.

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