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How to Acknowledge Employees’ Emotions to Build Trust

  • Research of interactions among co-workers finds that people are more likely to trust those who acknowledge emotions, especially negative ones
  • The findings suggest that leaders acknowledging negative emotions in their subordinates could have a beneficial impact, although this approach also carries risks
  • Emphasizing that employees are free to express themselves can be a good first step

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

Managers can potentially foster a more trustworthy environment by openly addressing the negative emotions of workers, according to recent research.

Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Julian Zlatev recently led a series of six studies on the issue, collecting responses from 2,500 people between 2018 and 2020. The results were recently published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

One study found that employees at a children’s hospital were more likely to trust coworkers who acknowledged their emotions, especially if those emotions were negative. The other studies had participants watch videos of workplace interactions, and participants rated those in the video who addressed coworkers’ negative emotions as more trustworthy than those who ignored them.

  • The studies focused on interactions between co-workers, so further research would be necessary to gauge the impact of such interactions between managers and their subordinates
  • Zlatev notes that addressing negative emotions carries some risk, as the person experiencing them may be unwilling to discuss them, consider the inquiry intrusive, or be dissatisfied if an employer takes no follow-up action
  • However, he says managers should be aware that they can forge stronger bonds with their employees if they emphasize that workers are free to express themselves, especially when it comes to stress or discontent
  • Zlatev says leaders can also create a more subtle change in their company culture by encouraging and supporting workers’ acknowledgement of their colleagues’ emotions whenever they see it

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