A Little Goes a Long Way: Expressing Negative Emotion to Address Workplace Conflict

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Experiencing negative emotions at work is common, yet unsurprisingly many people report feeling uncomfortable expressing them. Prior research has shown that willingness to express negative emotion is associated with a number of positive interpersonal outcomes, but when we are in situations that result in negative emotions, we often worry that expressing them will harm our relationships. The following studies investigated a typical kind of workplace conflict and tested the effects of choosing not to respond, expressing anger, or expressing sadness. Study 1 tested two vignettes to ensure that the presented conflict was perceived as serious and common and that experiencing negative emotions was seen as likely and appropriate. Study 2 tested nine responses to the conflict – three expressions of anger, three expressions of sadness, and three reasons for choosing not to confront the situation - to see which response was perceived most favorably, balancing competing desires for status conferral, agency, likability, behavior change, and appropriateness. Based on previous research that suggests gender may moderate how emotion expressions are perceived, Study 3 tested whether expressions of anger and sadness were perceived differently depending on the gender of the expresser. Choosing not to respond, no matter how reasonable and laudable the rationale, was the only response perceived significantly less favorably on all measures except likability. Moreover, expressing sadness – regardless of gender – was nearly as effective as expressing anger and was less interpersonally costly.