Whether we like it or not, emotions can be a powerful force when it comes to making workplace decisions. This tendency can be exploited when an argument is framed in emotional terms in order to persuade listeners. While this fact has been recognized for centuries, recent research has been investigating how emotional expression can shape or change others’ attitudes. For example, think of a disgruntled colleague expressing anger at a new policy change within the organization. Would this display of strong emotion affect your attitude and opinions? Recent research (Van Kleef, van der Berg & Heerdink, 2014) explored how emotional expressions influence attitude formation, and helped determine under which circumstances this could happen.
WHAT IS SOCIAL INFORMATION THEORY?
The researchers examined whether expressing emotions contributes to or undermines successful persuasion. In addressing this question, they adopted the “social-functional” theory approach to emotions. This theory explains that other peoples’ emotional expressions can provide social information that can in turn influence thinking, attitudes, and behavior. The theory also explains that the effects of these emotional expressions depend on the observer’s motivation and ability to process the information that they are receiving from the expressions.
RESULTS OF THE STUDY
Through a series of experiments, participants were shown to “borrow” the emotions of other people (or other sources of information) when forming their own attitudes. For example, when others framed given information (such as a TV show being cancelled) in a negative way with sad expressions, the participants reported negative attitudes towards the information. The same type of influence was also true when information (such as the introduction of kite-surfing into the Olympics) was framed in a positive manner. Some evidence also showed that both newly formed attitudes and previously held opinions can be influenced by others’ emotional expressions. This suggests that the expression of strong emotion isn’t only important in attitude formation, but also in attitude change. These results were similar whether written, pictorial, film or emoticon sources of emotion were used. Findings were further strengthened by showing how the effects of the study were mitigated when participants’ cognitive load (or amount of mental distraction) was either really high or really low.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results suggest that interpersonal emotional strategies may be another tool with which to influence others. The findings have interesting implications for managers who deal with people, their attitudes, and subsequent behaviors. The study indicates that capitalizing on effective use of emotional expression could be very useful in the workplace. For example, managers can use emotions to help promote organizational or cultural change. This and previous research highlight how a leader’s emotional expression can help shape employee attitudes about organizational issues. The results also highlight how leaders may unwittingly shape organizational culture and beliefs through their non-verbal communication.