Managing Your Emotions at Work

Controlling Your Feelings... Before They Control You

Choose how you react to frustration.

© iStockphoto/gocrawford

Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms – the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one's way. – Viktor Frankl, "Man's Search for Meaning."

We've all been in one of "those" situations before. You know... when your favorite project is cancelled after weeks of hard work; when a customer snaps at you unfairly; when your best friend (and co-worker) is laid off suddenly; or your boss assigns you more work when you're already overloaded.

In your personal life, your reaction to stressful situations like these might be to start shouting, or to go hide in a corner and feel sorry for yourself for a while. But at work, these types of behavior could seriously harm your professional reputation, as well as your productivity.

Stressful situations are all too common in a workplace that's facing budget cuts, staff layoffs, and department changes. It may become harder and harder to manage your emotions under these circumstances, but it's even more important for you to do so. After all, if management is forced into making more layoffs, they may choose to keep those who can handle their emotions, and work well under pressure. As the above quote shows, no matter what the situation is, you're always free to choose how you react to it.

So, how can you become better at handling your emotions, and "choosing" your reactions to bad situations? In this article, we look at the most common negative emotions experienced in the workplace – and how you can manage them productively.

Why are we focusing only on negative emotions? Well, most people don't need strategies for managing their positive emotions. After all, feelings of joy, excitement, compassion, or optimism usually don't affect others in a negative way. As long as you share positive emotions constructively and professionally, they're great to have in the workplace!

Common Negative Emotions at Work

In 1997, Bond University professor of management Cynthia Fisher conducted a study called "Emotions at Work: What Do People Feel, and How Should We Measure It?"

According to Fisher's research, the most common negative emotions experienced in the workplace are as follows:

  • Frustration/irritation.
  • Worry/nervousness.
  • Anger/aggravation.
  • Dislike.
  • Disappointment/unhappiness.

From "Emotions at Work: What Do People Feel and How Should we Measure it?" by Cynthia D. Fisher. School of Business Discussion Paper; No. 63, February 1997. © Copyright Cynthia D. Fisher and the School of Business, Bond University.

Below are different strategies you can use to help you deal with each of these negative emotions.

Frustration/Irritation

Frustration usually occurs when you feel stuck or trapped, or unable to move forward in some way. It could be caused by a colleague blocking your favorite project, a boss who is too disorganized to get to your meeting on time, or simply being on hold on the phone for a long time.

Whatever the reason, it's important to deal with feelings of frustration quickly, because they can easily lead to more negative emotions, such as anger.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with frustration:

  • Stop and evaluate – One of the best things you can do is mentally stop yourself, and look at the situation. Ask yourself why you feel frustrated. Write it down, and be specific. Then think of one positive thing about your current situation. For instance, if your boss is late for your meeting, then you have more time to prepare. Or, you could use this time to relax a little.
  • Find something positive about the situation – Thinking about a positive aspect of your situation often makes you look at things in a different way. This small change in your thinking can improve your mood. When it's people who are causing your frustration, they're probably not doing it deliberately to annoy you. And if it's a thing that's bothering you – well, it's certainly not personal! Don't get mad, just move on.
  • Remember the last time you felt frustrated – The last time you were frustrated about something, the situation probably worked out just fine after a while, right? Your feelings of frustration or irritation probably didn't do much to solve the problem then, which means they're not doing anything for you right now.

Worry/Nervousness

With all the fear and anxiety that comes with increasing numbers of layoffs, it's no wonder that many people worry about their jobs. But this worry can easily get out of control, if you allow it, and this can impact not only your mental health, but also your productivity, and your willingness to take risks at work.

Try these tips to deal with worrying:

  • Don't surround yourself with worry and anxiety – For example, if co-workers gather in the break room to gossip and talk about job cuts, then don't go there and worry with everyone else. Worrying tends to lead to more worrying, and that isn't good for anyone.
  • Try deep-breathing exercises – This helps slow your breathing and your heart rate. Breathe in slowly for five seconds, then breathe out slowly for five seconds. Focus on your breathing, and nothing else. Do this at least five times. For more on this, read our article on Physical Relaxation Techniques  .
  • Focus on how to improve the situation – If you fear being laid off, and you sit there and worry, that probably won't help you keep your job. Instead, why not brainstorm ways to bring in more business, and show how valuable you are to the company?
  • Write down your worries in a worry log – If you find that worries are churning around inside your mind, write them down in a notebook or "worry log," and then schedule a time to deal with them. Before that time, you can forget about these worries, knowing that you'll deal with them. When it comes to the time you've scheduled, conduct a proper risk analysis   around these things, and take whatever actions are necessary to mitigate any risks.

When you're worried and nervous about something, it can dent your self-confidence. Read our article on Building Self-Confidence   to make sure this doesn't happen. Also, don't let your worries get in the way of being appropriately assertive  .

Anger/Aggravation

Out-of-control anger is perhaps the most destructive emotion that people experience in the workplace. It's also the emotion that most of us don't handle very well. If you have trouble managing your temper at work, then learning to control it is one of the best things you can do if you want to keep your job.

Try these suggestions to control your anger:

  • Watch for early signs of anger – Only you know the danger signs when anger is building, so learn to recognize them when they begin. Stopping your anger early is key. Remember, you can choose how you react in a situation. Just because your first instinct is to become angry doesn't mean it's the correct response.
  • If you start to get angry, stop what you're doing – Close your eyes, and practice the deep-breathing exercise we described earlier. This interrupts your angry thoughts, and it helps put you back on a more positive path.
  • Picture yourself when you're angry – If you imagine how you look and behave while you're angry, it gives you some perspective on the situation. For instance, if you're about to shout at your co-worker, imagine how you would look. Is your face red? Are you waving your arms around? Would you want to work with someone like that? Probably not.

To find out more about managing your anger at work, take our self-test How Good Is Your Anger Management?   Also, read Dealing with Unfair Criticism   and Anger Management  .

Dislike

We've probably all had to work with someone we don't like. But it's important to be professional, no matter what.

Here are some ideas for working with people you dislike:

  • Be respectful – If you have to work with someone you don't get along with, then it's time to set aside your pride and ego. Treat the person with courtesy and respect, as you would treat anyone else. Just because this person behaves in an unprofessional manner, that doesn't mean you should as well.
  • Be assertive – If the other person is rude and unprofessional, then firmly explain that you refuse to be treated that way, and calmly leave the situation. Remember, set the example.

To learn more about handling dislike in the workplace, please see our articles on Working With People You Don't Like  , Dealing With Difficult People   and Egos at Work  .

Disappointment/Unhappiness

Dealing with disappointment or unhappiness at work can be difficult. Of all the emotions you might feel at work, these are the most likely to impact your productivity. If you've just suffered a major disappointment, your energy will probably be low, you might be afraid to take another risk, and all of that may hold you back from achieving.

Here are some proactive steps you can take to cope with disappointment and unhappiness:

  • Look at your mindset – Take a moment to realize that things won't always go your way. If they did, life would be a straight road instead of one with hills and valleys, ups and downs, right? And it's the hills and valleys that often make life so interesting.
  • Adjust your goal – If you're disappointed that you didn't reach a goal, that doesn't mean the goal is no longer reachable. Keep the goal, but make a small change – for example, delay the deadline.

    Our Back On Track   article provides practical steps for recovering from a major career setback.

  • Record your thoughts – Write down exactly what is making you unhappy. Is it a co-worker? Is it your job? Do you have too much to do? Once you identify the problem, start brainstorming ways to solve it or work around it. Remember, you always have the power to change your situation.
  • Smile! – Strange as it may sound, forcing a smile – or even a grimace – onto your face can often make you feel happy (this is one of the strange ways in which we humans are "wired.") Try it – you may be surprised!

Key Points

We all have to deal with negative emotions at work sometimes, and learning how to cope with these feelings is now more important than ever. After all, negative emotions can spread, and no one wants to be around a person who adds negativity to a group.

Know what causes your negative emotions, and which types of feelings you face most often. When those emotions begin to appear, immediately start your strategy to interrupt the cycle. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to pull yourself away from negative thinking.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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Comments (13)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi teksavy - it's great to hear from you. Feeling overwhelmed is never fun! I'm pleased you found the strategies in this tool helpful. Another article you might find helpful is called Asking For Help: http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/asking-for-help.php It outlines some things you can do to enlist the help of others without appearing needy or unable to cope.

    And for a powerful productivity tool that you can use on a regular basis to feel more in control in general, I highly recommend Action Programs ( http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newHTE_83.php ). This is such a great tool that helps keep your priorities straight and organize your to-do list! Take a look and see what you think.

    In the meantime, I wish you the very best with these new responsibility additions. Monitor the situation and find ways to ask for help if needed. We are always here in the forums for you to vent, bounce ideas around, and share perspectives - we'd love to stay in touch!

    Cheers!
    Dianna
  • teksavy wrote Over a month ago
    I work as a Technology Assistant for a growing school district. We have recently added two more schools but have not hired extra technology help. We're not going to. It has been very hard for me to handle the extra work and I find myself becoming frustrated and angry. This has given me some tools to use when I'm feeling overwhelmed.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Packy26, your observation about getting rid of the need to control, is spot on. As long as we want to control, we will probably not be very emotionally intelligent. Once we let go and replace it with positivity and good EI we will probably get a lot further. We can't change people, but we can influence them.

    Best wishes
    Yolandé
  • packy26 wrote Over a month ago
    I realized its all about one's ownself. i think once we get rid if our own feeling of control and replace it with positivity, it will make it easier and we can focus on progress rather than correction.

    however we still need to face all that we have to but now we will do it without worry.half the battle won.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi chacha_nicole

    Using these strategies may make a huge difference yes...not least because it affords you the ability to look at yourself, your reactions and your behaviour a bit more objectively. Sometimes it's so easy to justify a reaction while at the same time we won't tolerate that same reaction from someone else.

    Thanks for sharing your observation with us - please feel free to share more thoughts and ideas.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé
  • chacha_nicole wrote Over a month ago
    Applying these strategies can greatly improve your personal and professional life!! You will be a happier person.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    I like to think that by setting a good example we can help other people improve their own reactions and behaviours. It doesn't always work out that way but it's always worth trying. If you model emotional intelligence and react to situations with a balanced perspective then people around you will benefit from your calm, centered, demeanour. They won't feel the need to react negatively to you because you aren't giving them reason to.

    I do think that the more EI skills we use ourselves the better the people around us tend to behave. Maybe it's just that we are better able to deal with their behaviours because we "get" where they are coming from - whatever the reason, I have found that it works. For life in general, I find that the more I work on myself and improve my own outlook, attitude, and perspective, the more positive and contented everything around me becomes.

    I'm coming to accept more and more that I really can't make anyone around me be better, but if I make myself better they tend to come along on the journey with me.

    Dianna
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Packy, having read your comments I wanted to share my views on balance and EI. We are all unique individuals with uniques strengths and behaviors. If you are working with people who have different strengths try and appreciate the ones they have, over always noticing what is missing.

    Also try offering feedback in 'small mouthfuls!' so they get the opportunity to improve. Look for improvement and compliment them on it.

    hope this helps. cheers Michael
  • packy26 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Diana,

    Tool is extremely useful no doubt. I have these questions for very long time and now it seems one by one every question is being answered through these tools / articles.

    on my first reading i just felt different examples can make it more relevent and easier to grasp in practical life.

    However, i see myself happier and more confident just by being aware of it thats a great achievement in itself and thanks to mind tool for it.

    My question now is on people whose EI is really poor and they form very important part of your professional or personal life. How do we balance here..
    thanks
    Packy
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi packy,
    Our editorial team is working on adding more, or enhanced, examples to a variety of the articles we have. It's good to hear that members are looking for this sort of content. When dealing with emotions at work there seems to be a lot of examples we can draw from - it's one of those issues that tends to come up over and over again.

    The strategies presented and the links to further articles provide a great starting point to help break the cycle in our own workplaces. I hope you found the information useful. If you'd like to share your experiences after using the tools we'd love to hear from you. The one thing I've used quite successfully is a log to record my frustrations, disappointments, and emotions in general. After about a month I saw a distinct pattern emerging where one particular subset of work was causing a lot of emotional upset. So I asked to have that particular responsibility decreased and it made a massive difference.

    Dianna
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