What is the positive side of negative emotions, you say? The mental judo known as “cognitive reappraisal” — minimizing the emotional impact of bad situations — can be good for the soul but bad for the firm.
The benefits of “cognitive reappraisal” — the widely used self-help strategy of reframing distressing situations to move past the negative emotions they engender — are well established.
Studies have shown that when employees use reappraisal techniques, they are more satisfied with their jobs and are less susceptible to stress and burnout. The research also links reappraisal to higher employee performance.
Given these findings, it’s not surprising that many companies are teaching and encouraging employees to embrace the strategy. Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” training program is a notable example. The program, which includes reappraisal among other practical techniques for mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-management, was created by Chade-Meng Tan, one of the company’s engineers, in 2007. Demand for the program prompted Tan and others to found a nonprofit that went on to teach the techniques to employees in companies ranging from American Express to Volkswagen.
When Feeling Good Is Bad
But what if the outcomes of cognitive reappraisal aren’t entirely beneficial? One team of researchers — Matthew Feinberg and Brett Ford at the University of Toronto, along with Francis J. Flynn at Stanford Graduate School of Business — suspected that might be the case.
“Cognitive reappraisal lessens negative emotions by reframing situations in positive terms, but negative emotions serve important social functions,” explains Feinberg, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford GSB and Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “They help ensure that individuals behave in socially acceptable ways and encourage adherence to group norms.”
No research had considered the effect of cognitive reappraisal on negative emotions that can stifle counterproductive workplace behaviors — such as the theft of company property, lying about missing work, padding expenses, and withholding resources needed by colleagues. So, Feinberg, Ford, and Flynn ran five studies designed to establish the effect of cognitive reappraisal on “moral” emotions, like guilt and shame, that promote ethical behavior. They also examined how employees sometimes use reappraisal to act in unethical ways.
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