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All the Feels: Why It Pays to Notice Emotions in the Workplace

It pays to notice emotions in the workplace: learn more from recent research

Written by: Ted Kinni
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Alisa Yu first became intrigued with emotional acknowledgment while interviewing nurses working in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. The nurses told her that verbally acknowledging their young patients’ fears and stress created trust, which enabled them to do their jobs more effectively. “From then on, I began to see emotional acknowledgment everywhere,” recalls Yu, a PhD candidate in organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

This realization prompted Yu to team up with Justin Berg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, and Julian Zlatev, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, to conduct a series of studies exploring the effects of emotional acknowledgment in the workplace. Their findings, published in May in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, illuminate a straightforward yet powerful technique leaders can use to build trust with their employees.

Emotional acknowledgment is the simple act of noticing a nonverbal emotional cue — like a frown or grin — and mentioning it. This mention can be a question or a statement such as “You look upset,” or “You seem excited.”

The authors borrow from costly signaling theory, a concept proposed by evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi in the 1970s, to suggest that this small act can have a powerful effect because it is read as a sign of genuine intentions. As an example, Zahavi argued that when peacocks fan out their tails to attract mates, it is an “honest signal” of their reproductive fitness. That’s because the colorful display also attracts predators, a potentially fatal risk for weaker peacocks.

Similarly, Yu and her coauthors argue that in a work environment, a supervisor who shows concern for others’ emotional state is signaling a willingness to get involved in a potentially messy situation. “A leader could very easily see someone in distress and choose to ignore it,” Yu says. “But only a leader who truly is benevolent and cares about employees would risk getting involved by voluntarily acknowledging the distressed employee. Thus, employees might take this as a signal that this leader is someone who can be trusted with their well-being.”

More Than a Feeling

This is exactly what Yu, Berg, and Zlatev discovered in their research across six studies, which included a field study with hospital employees and experiments in which participants were shown videos of two actors demonstrating emotional acknowledgment in a workplace break room. Throughout the studies, participants reported higher levels of trust in people who engaged in emotional acknowledgment than those who did not.

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