AET states that work-related events, known as affective events, occurring in workplaces cause specific emotional reactions in employees which in turn lead to attitudinal and behavioural changes in employees. AET marked the beginning of the study of the person level emotional changes in organizations and therefore is considered a seminal piece of work.
The study of emotions in the workplace and their implications for employee and organizational wellbeing has been a major development in management studies in the 21st century. Thanks to this advancement in management thought, employees are no longer expected to leave their emotions behind when they enter their workplaces. An understanding of emotions is important because once activated our emotions cause our goals to change from their prior state to a new and different state based on the type of emotion felt. Therefore, understanding the emotions that employees feel in the work setting is also important as emotions determine employees’ subsequent thoughts, behaviours and attitudes. Although emotions have usually been discarded as irrational and therefore disruptive, emotions for the most part have a positive and adaptive function as they steer us towards the fulfilment of important goals and needs in life. It is only when emotions bring about results that are contrary to what the emotional person is trying to achieve, do emotions become troublesome. Research has found that our emotions play a crucial role in our decision making process. The emotional part of our brains work very closely with our thinking part of the brain to assist our decision making and reasoning abilities. Therefore our emotions are a very important part of our lives.
One reason that emotions in the workplace have been ignored for so long by researchers is because of their dynamic and short lived nature. Our emotions do not last very long and change from moment to moment and this makes them difficult to study accurately. However, it is these very moment to moment changes in emotions that affect cognitive and behavioural changes in employees and are therefore worthy of study.
A theory that has been successful in capturing these momentary changes in employees’ emotions and their consequences and therefore has made the study of such a transient phenomena much easier is the ‘Affective Events Theory’ (or AET) developed by Weiss and Cropanzano in 1996. AET states that work-related events, known as affective events, occurring in workplaces cause specific emotional reactions in employees which in turn lead to attitudinal and behavioural changes in employees. AET marked the beginning of the study of the person level emotional changes in organizations and therefore is considered a seminal piece of work.
Work-related hassles and uplifts
According to AET, a work-related event can be any event, occurrence or incident that happens in the work environment. Such events, depending on their impact can either be hassles or uplifts. Hassles are those work related events that cause disruption or difficulties for an employee to carry out their work tasks. Uplifts on the other hand are those events that make employees’ work tasks much easier and fulfilling. For example possible hassles that may exist in a workplace are difficult customers, an abusive supervisor or manager, noisy or poorly lighted work environment, impossible deadlines or sales targets, poor company policies and procedures, lack of proper recognition or rewards for work carried out, work overload, time pressure etc. Possible uplifts may be supportive colleagues, strong mentoring programs, work related incentives etc. It’s important to note that an event can turn out to be either a hassle or an uplift based on the nature of its impact. For example, poor and unhelpful supervision will be a hassle for employees while strong and supportive supervision will be an uplift. Also each organization will have its own set of unique hassles and uplifts.
Emotional, behavioural changes
AET further states that due to the exposure to these hassles and uplifts employees will have specific emotional reactions. Hassles will lead to the experience of negative emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, fear etc while uplifts will be associated with positive emotions such as happiness, excitement, pride, contentment etc. These emotional reactions in turn will lead to behavioural and attitudinal changes in employees. For example it has been found that the occurrence of frequent hassles leads to frequent negative emotions in employees which in the long run affect their job satisfaction, absenteeism and even decision to leave the organization. Uplifts on the other hand have been found to increase job satisfaction and desire to stay in the organization.
Hassles that occur occasionally are not strong determinants of employee behaviour. Employees are capable of tackling disruptions that happen once in a while in their workplaces. However, when hassles occur on a continuous basis, the employee will become vulnerable to a downward spiral in emotions that will subsequently have a significant impact on the way he/she views the organization and decides what to do about it. That is why in organizations that are characterised by lousy leadership, poor pay and unfair treatment, employees generally feel frustrated, display rebellious behaviour, have high rates of absenteeism and have problems in retaining existing employees.
Similarly occasional uplifts do not have a lasting impact on employee’s subsequent behaviour. Uplifts need to be frequent and strong for employees to feel satisfied with their working environment. All these factors, ultimately affect the organization’s bottom line. Therefore the message given to management by AET is strong and clear: ‘Pay attention to employee’s emotions or else suffer the consequences’.
Next week we will look at the strategies that management can adopt to change work environments for the better and thereby increase employee emotional wellbeing.
To be continued.........
(Nilupama Wijewardena is a doctoral student at Monash University and she can be reached at email@example.com)