Emotions in the Workplace: Negative Moral Emotions and How to Manage Them

Emotions in the WorkplaceBasic emotions such as happiness and sadness are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. But many of the emotions we experience in the workplace are much more complex — especially moral emotions.

Morals are the principles that differentiate between good and bad behavior, and they vary from person to person. Individuals have unique moral compasses that provide immediate punishment or rewards for thoughts and behaviors.


Understand employee emotions and how they relate to engagement: New Research—Emotions in the Workplace.


Emotions that are influenced by our morals are called moral emotions. They include emotions like guilt, regret, and shame — and they carry much more weight than our primary emotions. 

When left unchecked, moral emotions can have a serious impact on the workplace. It's important for organizations to understand these unique emotions and strive to find the right balance of supporting and preventing them at work.


To get a better sense of emotions in the workplace, including the impact of moral emotions, we conducted a research study. In this blog post we'll discuss negative moral emotions and how to manage them at work.


Negative Moral Emotions

We asked employees to rank a set of emotions in order of what they believe is most negative (1) to least negative (10). Results are listed below in order of overall average rank, including average percentage of how often each emotion was in a respondent’s top three.

moral emotions

When taking average rank and top 3 percentage into account, employees believe the most negative moral emotions are:

  • Humiliation
  • Disgust
  • Resentment

Do these results surprise you at all? How would you personally rank the items in that list, based on how negative you feel when those emotions come up? What impact do you think each of these emotions could have on your workplace if left unaddressed?


Managing Emotions in the Workplace

The best thing you can do to combat negative moral emotions and their repercussions is to help employees at all levels feel equipped to deal with their own emotions and the emotions of others. Employees should take the Recognize, Understand, Manage approach when dealing with emotions at work.



When emotions start to bubble up, don't panic. Take a deep breath and recognize the emotion for what it is. Don't react immediately — instead try to put a label on what it is you're feeling. If you feel upset, what is causing you to feel that way? Are you angry? Are you frustrated? A little of both? Try to determine when you became aware of the feeling, and what triggered it. Don't judge yourself for how you feel.

If you are trying to maneuver around someone else's emotions, exercise your empathy skills and try to determine what emotions they might be feeling and what triggered it. Don't take it personally and don't make judgments about the situation. Just try to get on their level first.



After you've named your emotions, focus on the "why" behind them. Dig deep and try to discover their origin. Follow them down the pathway to where you are now with questions like these:

  • Why do you feel this way?
  • Are your emotions coming from something within you, or something external?
  • If it's a familiar emotion, think about other times you've felt this emotion and how you previously responded.
  • What went well?
  • What didn't?
  • How do you want to respond differently in this moment?

When dealing with someone else's emotions, strive to truly understand what they are feeling and why. Ask them how they are feeling and if they are okay. If they don't want to talk about it or they say everything is fine when it's obviously not, respect their wishes and don't press things. But if they do want to talk it out, find a quiet space and just listen. Don't brainstorm, don't problem solve — just listen!



Once you've taken time to cool down and reflect, the third and final step is managing the situation. You need to figure out how you are going to respond, if at all. There are no hard and fast rules for how to respond, but here a few things to consider:

  • Do you still feel the need to address the situation?
  • Is it possible you overreacted?
  • Are there things that need to be resolved before you can move forward?
  • What will you say when you do address the situation? What might others involved say?
  • What did you learn from this situation that you can apply to future situations like it?

When navigating the emotions of others, you really can't manage them. But you can take what you've learned in your attempts to recognize and understand them and apply that to how you accept their response. Remember that everyone is different, and no one is going to handle things the exact same way you would.


Want to learn more about how emotions in the workplace impact employee engagement? Download our emotions research: Emotions in the Workplace: How Employees Feel at Work and Why It Matters.

Emotions in the Workplace