Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Emotions in the workplace have an image problem.

This episode explores the most common positive emotions employees feel at work, the most common negative emotions employees feel, and negative moral emotions.


Here’s a good exercise to do after listening to this episode: ask a few coworkers this question – “Would you consider yourself an emotional person?” Chances are pretty good most people would say no or not really. Ooh, here’s an even better exercise – right now, as you’re listening to this, think about someone being really emotional during a team meeting. Could be based on a real event, could be hypothetical. What’s going on, what’s happening with this person who’s being really emotional? Chances are also pretty good that you just thought of showing negative emotions.

Emotions are one of the most fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented topics I’ve come across over the years. And it only gets worse when you’re talking about emotions in the workplace. Somehow, for whatever reason, the topic of emotions is largely framed in a negative way.

Think about the phrase “You’re being emotional right now.” That is never, ever used in response to positive emotions. When you’re happy you just won a game you were playing, or laughing from a joke someone just said, has anyone ever told you “You’re being emotional right now”? Probably not.

Did you laugh or smile at work today? Then you showed emotions. Were you bored and zoning out in your last meeting? Emotion. Upset or sad at losing a customer? Emotions. Excited at hitting a goal? Energized after a coworker announced that donuts are in the kitchen? Cautious of your manager catching you playing games online? Afraid as you walk into your manager’s office after being called in for an unscheduled meeting? Emotions. You were being emotional during all of these events, and you’re even feeling various emotions as you’re hearing this right now.

Despite emotions almost always being present in every person all the time, we continue to pigeonhole emotions into a box of negativity and weakness. And because of that, we don’t talk about them. They make us feel uncomfortable. It is foolish and dangerous to think that emotions are these things that shouldn’t be talked about or shown at work. So in the spirit of talking about emotions, here at Quantum Workplace we conducted a study about emotions in the workplace. I wanted to give the results and the topic due diligence, so I’m breaking it up into two episodes.

In this episode I’ll be going over three mysteries. First I’ll review the mystery of the most common positive emotions employees feel at work. Then I’ll talk about the most common negative emotions employees feel. Finally, I’ll go over the mystery of moral emotions.


The Most Commonly Felt Positive Emotions at Work

Positive emotions feel good. That’s why they’re labeled as being positive – they’re feelings that immediately benefit us, feelings that we’re attracted to. When you’re happy, like joking and laughing with coworkers, you benefit by feeling more connected with those coworkers. Or when you’re feeling calm, you benefit by being able to process and respond to information in a more composed, level-headed way. 

In our study, we asked employees to indicate which three positive emotions—from a list of ten—they feel most frequently at work. Without listing those ten emotions, think about that yourself – which three positive emotions do you feel most frequently at work? I’ll give you a few seconds to think that through, or you could pause here to give it even more thought.



The most commonly felt positive emotion is feeling comfortable. When we hear the word “comfortable,” we often think of physical comfort. That’s not too off the mark with emotional comfort. It’s all about feeling content, feeling at ease.

When you’re emotionally comfortable around people, you’re not on edge. You’re more likely to open up, be yourself, be more transparent and authentic with those around you. Those are the kinds of things you want in your team. You want your team members to feel comfortable with each other and with you.

You can increase comfort in your team by regularly meeting with each individual, like a monthly one-on-one. Another way is to make sure your team members feel heard. That they have a voice, and their opinions matter in some way. And good old-fashioned team building can be great to lower walls between people. Though I will say that these activities should be something that everyone can do and enjoys. Like it’s not great if you go to a sporting event and only half your team cares about sports, or you play board games and you can tell several people are zoning out.



The second most commonly felt positive emotion is feeling satisfied. Now, feeling satisfied is really similar to feeling comfortable. However, whereas comfort is about feeling content and that’s it, satisfaction is about feeling content because of some sort of fulfillment. Like feeling satisfied about being recognized for a job well done, feeling satisfied you finish an important project, or feeling satisfied when you help a customer with a problem.

Fulfillment is the name of the game here. To help your team members feel satisfied, make sure they have projects that challenge them every once in a while. Be aware of individual strengths and cater tasks and responsibilities to those unique strengths, especially in ways that are meaningful to your team members. Likewise, recognize employees for a job well done. This can be at the team or individual level, but ultimately it’s about celebrating accomplishments.



Finally, the third most commonly felt positive emotion is feeling enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is feeling absorbed in something, especially something you’re interested in. Enthusiasm is really similar to engagement – of feeling connected. In this case, it’s about feeling connected to something in the moment, based on something that energizes you.

To tap into enthusiasm in your team, find things that your team members feel especially passionate about. Could be helping others, could be answering questions, could be brainstorming new ideas. Could also be poking holes in or criticizing ideas. Find those passions and allow your team to explore them.

This relates to another way of enhancing enthusiasm – by allowing your team members to connect and learn from one another. This sometimes happens naturally due to the size or makeup of your team. But as your team gets bigger or more specialized, make sure everyone knows each other’s strengths and passions so you can create a network of enthusiasm in your team.


The main takeaway from this first section is that you should do your best to support your team so they can feel positive emotions more frequently. We found that comfort, satisfaction, and enthusiasm are the most common positive emotions felt by employees. To increase those feelings in your team, or to keep the momentum going, think about ways to have your team members feel at ease, feel fulfilled, and feel energized.


The Most Commonly Felt Negative Emotions at Work

Negative emotions don’t feel good. That’s why they’re labeled as being negative – they’re feelings we generally want to avoid. And if something causes us to feel negative emotions, we often want to avoid that thing. Like if you feel miserable every time you hang out with a certain coworker, chances are good you try to avoid that coworker. Or if you’re uncomfortable when you have to do a certain task or activity, you want to avoid doing that task.

But here’s the thing – at work, we rarely get a choice on what we can avoid. No matter how much you dislike doing something, generally you just have to suck it up and do it. The problem is that if you feel negative emotions every time you do that task, those negative feelings will only get worse. And over time they can negatively impact your concentration, your productivity, and your health and wellbeing.

And if you feel negative emotions around other people, that can be even worse. Interpersonal conflict, hurt feelings, aggression, gossiping, all those things that make work environments unhealthy. When those negative emotions take root and cause negative behaviors, they can snowball. Negative emotions can easily spread within a team, creating a wound that can take a really long time to heal. And sometimes they never heal.

So technically speaking, you want to minimize negative emotions as much as possible in your team. In our study, we asked employees to indicate which four negative emotions—from a list of fifteen—they feel most frequently at work. Same drill here as in the previous section – think about which negative emotions you feel most frequently at work. I’ll give you a few seconds.



We found that the most commonly felt negative emotion is frustration. To feel frustrated is to feel disappointed or dissatisfied. Remember that satisfaction is about fulfillment. So frustration is often due to some lack of fulfillment, some barrier that’s not letting you achieve something.

You could feel frustrated with your coworkers when they don’t share information with you, information that would’ve really helped you on a certain task. You could feel frustrated that you’re not advancing in your career. You could feel frustrated that your own manager doesn’t help you when things get busy.

To reduce feelings of frustration in your team, it’s all about removing barriers and building bridges. Communication within your team should be open, timely, and transparent, both from you to your team and your team to you, as well as your team members to each other.

Another way to reduce frustration is to make sure your team has all the resources they need to effectively get their jobs done. Hardware, software, tools, whatever they need. And finally, have developmental or career conversations with your team members to see what might be holding them back. To see which barriers you can help chip away at or completely remove so your team can fully thrive.



The second most commonly felt negative emotion is stress. To feel stressed is to feel some kind of tension. You can think about it like a coping mechanism – if you can’t effectively cope with something, this creates tension, or stress.

I was actually surprised when I first saw these results because I would’ve expected stress to be at the top, not second place. You hear from so many people how stressed they are, that they’re stressed out, or how stressful their days are. You can feel stressed from anything – how your manager treats you, how much work you have to do, interacting with customers.

Minimizing tension is how you can help your team out the most when it comes to stress. One thing that helps a lot here to keep your team’s workloads manageable. As a manager you don’t always have a say in how many responsibilities are placed on your team, and I get that. But if it becomes too much and you notice your team members are consistently unable to complete their work, talk with your own manager to see what could be done to alleviate some of your team’s workload.



Finally, the third most commonly felt negative emotion is anxiety. To feel anxious is to feel some sense of uneasiness, a kind of intense worry and fear about something. Anxiety is often driven by a fear of the unknown. Not knowing how to do a specific task, not knowing where your future or the future of the company is headed, or even not knowing how someone might talk about you after an awkward discussion or miscommunication.

The best way to help minimize anxiety is to provide clarity. Like you can let employees know it’s okay to ask you for help if they’re struggling with a certain task. Or you can keep an open-door policy, letting employees voice their concerns so they don’t grow and become larger and worse than they need to be. And arguably the most important thing you can do is to keep employees in the loop. They need frequent, timely, and transparent communication about what’s going on both in your team and the organization as a whole.


One additional note is that in our study, people managers indicated being stressed and frustrated more commonly than individual contributors. This is super important because on the one hand, that makes sense. As a manager, you often have way more responsibilities, demands, and channels of communication than your team members, meaning there’s a higher chance of feeling stressed and frustrated. So as a people manager, if you sometimes feel especially frustrated or stressed, remember that you’re not alone.

The main takeaway from this second section is that the most common negative emotions felt by employees are frustration, stress, and anxiety. To decrease these feelings in your team, think about ways you can remove barriers, minimize tension, and provide clarity to your team.


Negative Moral Emotions

There are a lot of different kinds of emotions. One common way of viewing them is to break them up into positive and negative, like I did in the previous two sections. Another common way is to break them into basic and complex emotions.

Basic emotions are simple emotions that you kind of just feel and don’t process or think about all that much. Happiness, sadness, boredom. Complex emotions, however, typically involve more mental processing. You think about these emotions more, and they typically impact you more deeply than basic emotions. I want to focus on a particular group of complex emotions known as moral emotions.

Morals are the principles that differentiate between good and bad. Your sense of ethics, your morality, your moral compass. Emotions that are influenced by our morals are called moral emotions. They’re emotions we feel based on our personal moral code.

Like if your team achieved an important goal, you might feel proud, which is a kind of moral emotion. Or if your team didn’t achieve an important goal because of something you did, you might feel a sense of guilt, which is another kind of moral emotion. Given how focused these emotions are on the self, it makes sense that these emotions are also known as self-conscious emotions.

In our study, we asked employees to rank a list of negative moral emotions from most negative to least negative. I’m going to list those ten emotions out, and as I’m doing that think about which ones you personally think are the most negative. In alphabetical order, they are: disappointment, disgust, embarrassment, envy, guilt, humiliation, jealousy, regret, resentment, and shame.

We found that the most negative moral emotion on average is humiliation. This is when you feel ashamed or foolish, generally when your dignity or self-respect are hurt in some way. The second most-negative moral emotion is disgust. This is when you feel strong disapproval, generally by something that’s unpleasant or offensive. Finally, the third most-negative moral emotion is resentment. This is when you feel bitterly angry about experiencing some kind of injustice or being treated unfairly.

I could go on and on about these complex emotions, but for the sake of time I’ll stop here. The point of this section was to branch out a little bit from basic emotions, to at least expose you to the idea that emotions can be much more complex than just feeling happy or sad. They can tap into a person’s sense of morality, getting into moral emotions. And we found that the most negative moral emotions include humiliation, disgust, and resentment.



As a recap of this episode, I discussed some results of our study about emotions in the workplace. The most common positive emotions felt by employees at work are comfort, satisfaction, and enthusiasm, whereas the most common negative emotions are frustration, stress, and anxiety. And we also found that the most negative moral emotions include humiliation, disgust, and resentment. 

Every day, every hour, we feel and show emotions, and we see emotions from others. Yet we rarely take the time to think about those emotions. And when we do, we tend to hyper-focus on negative emotions. My hope is that with this episode and the next one, you start thinking a little more about the complexity of the emotions you feel in yourself and the emotions you see in others.

If you’re interested in learning more about what we found in our study, check out our resource entitled Emotions in the Workplace

And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss emotional vulnerability.

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