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The role of affect (emotion) in the workplace

The role of emotion in the workplace has been overlooked until recent times (but see Hochschild, 1983). However there is increasing evidence that emotion plays a fundamental role in important features of workplace behaviour:

Decision making

Recent literature (see Peters, Vastfjall, Garling & Slovic (2006) for a good start point) indicates that we have (at least) two independent channels for processing decision-making tasks: a 'cold', logical channel, which tends to be fact based and relatively slow, and a 'hot' , affect-based channel, which is available relatively quickly, and which we tend to think of as leading to irrational decisions. However there is evidence that this second channel may not be entirely irrational: affect may be a result of past learning about similar circumstances or products, and therefore be informative. Equally, the two 'hot' and 'cold' channels interact: we take both rational and affect information into account.

There is also some evidence (e.g. Connolly & Butler, 2006; Montague & Berns, 2004) that affect is the link beween choosing amongst dissimilar items (e.g. making comparisons between three different types of vehicle: there may be good factual reasons to choose one over the other two, but in the end part of the coice may boil down to which vehicle you 'liked to sit in' most).

Interpersonal Behaviour

Affect influences how we communicate with one another! Evidence suggests that affect can have either a positive or negative effect on interpersonal interactions, depending on specific situationally specific factors (e.g. Forgas 1995). Forgas (2002) suggests that affect plays a crucial and instrumental role on relationship behaviour, group behaviour and organisational behaviour.


The direct effects of affect on productivity are not well established, however indirect effects, such as those of motivation, organisational commitment, the effects of organisational culture are present in the literature, and from our own experience. 

Poor affect in the workplace -whether that is anger, frustration, distraction, or other emotions that detract from the task at hand, are costly to the organisation. The most common reason cited for people to leave their job is related to the behaviour of their boss.

Equally, positive workplaces have less turnover, higher levels of organisational commitment and more examples of citizenship (see Podsakoff, Whiting, Podsakoff & Blume, 2009 for a meta-analysis of the relationship between citizenship and productivity).

If you would like to contact me about any of the content, please do : jane.pollock@psy.ox.ac.uk

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