How Can Leaders Effectively Manage Employees’ Negative Emotions?

Topic(s): burnout, coaching, leadership, performance
Publication: Leadership Quarterly (2016)
Article: The role of leader emotion management in leader-member exchange and follower outcomes
Authors: L. M. Little, J. Gooty, M. Williams
Reviewed by: Kevin Leung

Leaders often have to address employees’ negative emotions. Whether employees are feeling anxious about a project, feeling sad about missing a promotion, or feeling angry about being unfairly treated, leaders play a part in managing these emotions. New research (Little, Gooty, & Williams, 2016) has shown that how these emotions get handled can affect employees’ performance and how they feel about their jobs.


There are four strategies that leaders can use to manage others’ negative emotions. The first two, called “problem-focused” strategies, are aimed at changing the causes of the emotion:

(1) Change the situation – Modify or remove aspects of situations that cause negative emotions (e.g., if an employee is feeling anxious about finishing a heavy workload over a short time, a supervisor can either reduce the workload or re-assign some work to other employees).

(2) Change the thoughts – Help an employee re-assess or re-interpret a situation (e.g., if an employee is feeling sad about being turned down by a prospective client, a manager can reframe that failure as a normal and important step for learning how to sell).

The other two approaches are “emotion-focused” strategies aimed at changing the negative emotion itself:

(3) Use distractions – Turn attention away from a situation or avoid it entirely (e.g., using humor or making fun of a common enemy).

(4) Encourage suppression – Tell the person to calm down or relax, or more directly, say “that’s enough.”


Which one of these strategies works better? In a survey of employee-supervisor pairs, the researchers found that changing the situation and changing thoughts (the “problem-focused” strategies) were associated with employees seeing themselves in a quality relationship with their supervisors, which in turn led them to be more helpful at work and feeling happier about their jobs. On the other hand, being encouraged to suppress emotions was associated with feeling a lower quality of relationship with one’s supervisor, as well as being less helpful at work and feeling less satisfied about one’s job.


Employees are aware of the efforts that leaders make to handle their emotions. Therefore, leaders are advised to be in-tune with their followers’ emotions and to be aware of how they handle them, as some strategies are more effective than others. The use of problem-focused strategies signals to employees that they are being cared for and that they are not simply being dismissed for feeling a certain way. The authors suggest that creating the perception that one is genuinely trying to be helpful in dealing with negative emotions can be a powerful skill to develop, especially for leaders in training.


Little, L.M., Gooty, J., & Williams, M. (2016). The role of leader emotion management in leader-member exchange and follower outcomes. Leadership Quarterly, 27(1), 85-97.