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The Serious Business of Emotions at Work

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 March 2009

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

ende.jpgPositive psychology is for wimps.
“Organizations won’t listen unless you talk hard business measures.”
Business people aren’t interested in emotions and all that pink, fluffy stuff.

I disagree.  I’ve introduced Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory and discussed the power of positive (and negative) emotions at work with business people. And lived to tell the tale.  Here’s a five-step version of that story that I use in coaching business people:

  1. Discuss the BENEFIT of emotions. Use research and explain Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory briefly and stress the application to business. One thing that businesses are always looking for is the ability to “do more with less.” Using positive emotions at work is a way of doing just this – because positive emotions create extra psychological, social, physical and intellectual resources for relatively little outlay. You want resilient or creative employees who can solve problems and build good relationships with colleagues? Then try developing their positive emotions.
  2. Discuss the BENEFIT of the theory applied to business. One great way of doing this is to use Fredrickson and Losada’s research into positive emotions and teams. See Marcial Losada’s article here for further information. Make sure you understand the butterfly model and can explain what it means; saying ‘it’s very complex’ or ‘I don’t understand mathematical modeling, but this is what you need to know…’ doesn’t cut it. If you leave it out, use some of the simple ratios to explain the science instead.
  3. picture5.jpgHelp people ASSESS their experience.  To get coaching clients to start thinking about their own experience of emotion at work, introduce them to Carr’s circumplex model of emotions. Better still, overlay the circumplex model with Loehr and Schwartz’s energy model (Fig. 1).
    • Ask them to identify which quadrant they spend most of their working day in. Or what typically happens to move them from quadrant 1 to quadrants 3 or 4. Or how important it is to use the quadrant 2 to restore balance, reflect and learn.
    • The conclusion many of my coaching clients reach is that they spend too long on the left hand side, especially in quadrant 3, and not enough time on the right hand side, especially quadrant 2.  [Ask yourself how much time you devote to reflection and learning, for example – typically this is what gets squeezed out of our busy work schedules].
    • Ask them what their typical coping strategies are, or what they do to change their emotional state – when in quadrant 4, do they overeat, smoke or binge drink, for example? When in quadrant 3, do they lose their temper, shout or act aggressively? There are countless questions you can put to your coaching client to get them to really think about how they use emotions at work, and how they sometimes let emotions get in the way of performance.scriptingnews1.jpg
  4. Ask about their EMOTIONAL TONE.  Get your coaching client to start thinking about what they do which positively or negatively influences the emotional tone of the team they work in, or their organization as a whole. Ask what they can do, in the heat of the moment, to adopt a meta-position, from which to view and evaluate their emotions and behavior objectively.                       
  5. aloshbennett.jpgMake things CONCRETE. This step is about making the work done in steps 3 and 4 more concrete.  Usually I don’t ask coaching clients to complete it immediately after step 4, because they often like to take time to reflect, and possibly have a few days to observe their emotional selves ‘in action’ in the workplace.  Remember, when you’re trying to change behavior, awareness is more than half the battle.

The Emotions-at-Work Process

Here’s an outline of the process. Ask your coaching client to:


  • i) identify an emotion that they’ve felt at work recently. This can be positive or negative.
  • ii) describe what it was about the work that caused this emotion.
  • iii) describe what it was about the work that caused the work to cause the emotion (this is where it gets to sound a bit like that nursery rhyme ‘The house that Jack built’!).
  • iv) explain the immediate and long-term consequences of their emotion or causes of the emotion.


  • v) explain what they could do to enhance or decrease the emotion or the causes of the emotion (depending whether positive or negative). What constructive coping strategies could they adopt?
  • vi) explain what they could do to change the work which causes the emotions (either to enhance or decrease the emotion).
  • vii) create new goals based on (v) and (vi).

Having done this exercise, they’ll be far more aware of their emotions at work, as well as have more constructive strategies for dealing with negative emotions, or maximizing positive ones. Personally, I don’t think emotions, positive or negative, need to be kept in the closet at work, in fact, there are advantages to putting them under the microscope like this. But you need to take the heat out of the discussion, and give business people the opportunity to explore their emotions dispassionately, setting goals which will enhance their performance.  This exercise is just one of many ways to do this.

Providing you show real benefits, that pink and fluffy subject of emotions can be transformed into serious business.



Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths. Hove. Routledge.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

Fredrickson B. L. & Losada M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686.

Harris, C., Daniels, K. & Briner, R. (2002) Using cognitive mapping for psychosocial risk assessment. Risk management: An International Journal, 7-20.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.

Watson, D. & Tellegen, A. (1985). Toward a consensual structure of mood. Psychological Bulletin, 98 (2), 219-35.

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Kathryn Britton 26 March 2009 - 9:07 am


Exactly. One of the useful things to discuss is the myth that people leave emotions at the door when they come to work. Then you can explore emotions that people see expressed among the highest and grandest among them … as well as the ones they themselves experience. I’ve seen a top-level technologist emulate Kruschev — take off his shoe and pound the table with it. I’ve seen holes in the walls of offices, where people have put their fists through.

Then it becomes a matter of choice, what kinds of emotions one experiences at work.


Bridget 26 March 2009 - 12:33 pm

Hi Kathryn

Thanks for taking the time to comment, in the midst of your busy travelling schedule.

You make a very good point here. Emotions seem to be a taboo subject, but not surprisingly the workplace is awash with them. I’ve also seen some pretty extraordinary outbursts and I bet others have too.

I’m not sure if emotional experience is a matter of choice, although expression certainly is.


Amanda Horne 27 March 2009 - 12:39 am

Hi Bridget

This is wonderfully encouraging, and that you lived to tell the tale.
Corporate groups really do love this stuff, and increasingly I’m finding this is no resistance to the topic being discussed at work. In fact, just by asking them to discuss positive / negative emotions, without mentioned Fredrickson, they talk about the benefits, not knowing there is a theory. They enjoy learning that there is a theory to back up what they have known all along.

It’s great to read how you bring the physical aspect into the discussion (Loehr and Schwartz), and get them out of their heads and into their bodies. The effect can go in the other direction too. Eat well, exercise well, leads to more productive emotions.

I have learnt that emotions aren’t necessarily a taboo topic at work. The a-ha moments for them are when they learn about broaden and build, they learn there is a ratio, and there is a science behind this, which supports what they knew anyway. This propels them to reflect, and to get more serious about improving that ratio, and to take actions at work. For their own good, and for the good of others. They know what to do.

Great article – thank you!
Amanda Horne

Elaine O'Brien 27 March 2009 - 1:40 am

Beautifully said Bridget! This compelling topic of interest was addressed at a wonderful Positive Business Appreciative Inquiry today at Penn. Thanks so much for clarifying, sharing your wisdom and for leading the way here.

Great job,

Elaine O’Brien

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 27 March 2009 - 5:55 am

Hi Amanda

I’m glad to hear you’re having success in using Pos Psych at work. Do let me know a bit more about what you do.

I suppose my posting might suggest that there are no sceptics, when of course there always are. I was expecting to get some sceptical responses from readers too…there’s still time!


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 27 March 2009 - 5:58 am

Hi Elaine

I should point out that Senia did a beautiful piece of editing here!

Where can I find out more about the Positive Business Appreciative Inquiry event you mention?


WJ 28 March 2009 - 3:19 pm

Bridget – I have run workshops on positive emotional intelligence (EI+)for many years and have found business very receptive. In the workshops I put the case for positive emotions from a thinking and behavioural perspective – interestingly I don’t mention Fredricksens work – there are earlier researchers such as Alice Isen who provide more useful information that is relevant to business.

Having presented the case and getting everyone to agree, I then get them to list 10 things they can do to activate a positive mood in themselves and others. They are then asked to remove those items that involve spending more than $10? The list diminishes rapidly – we then have a discussion about consumerism. They are then asked to remove those items they can’t use in a meeting (where they might to activate some creativity). For most people there are very few items left. Then the workshop begins by teaching them mindfulness etc.

However one observation – early on I made the mistake of using some of the language that permeates PP. The problem is that much of it goes down like a lead balloon. Try talking about gratitude, optimism, happiness and appreciative inquiry to a group of police officers and they will walk out.

Katrina Miller 25 November 2010 - 9:30 am

Beautiful job! Positive psychology is so refreshing amid the world view focusing on can’ts and limitations. Hurray for the message! You do a great job.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 22 January 2011 - 2:32 am

Hi Katrina

Thanks for your vote of confidence. I agree with you in many ways, although as WJ points out above, it’s important to use the right language when you’re using PP in a business world.


Rebeca Dreicon 20 June 2013 - 9:32 pm

Hi Bridget,

I would like to understand how can you apply the circumplex model of affect in corporations? would that be applied as a q’re asking how people feel on that day/time? Do you think people could measure their emotions in relation to places?


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 30 June 2013 - 4:09 am

Hi Rebeca

Thanks for your questions. It’s good to know that the older articles are still being read!

Yes I have applied the circumplex model in corporations; generally it reveals a whole host of questions about how teams behave and interact. You might find the work of Losada & Heaphy (2004) on positive emotions in business teams interesting.

Typically I ask questions about which quadrant is most familiar / dominates in the workplace and why – some organisations I’ve worked for swear that the high energy negative quadrant is where they have to operate to be most effective. This leads to an interesting and helpful conversation about emotional contagion and so on.

Hope that helps!
Warm wishes


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