Angry employees are more likely to do unethical things at work—even if work isn’t what they’re angry about.
The finding underscores how important it is for supervisors to pay attention to employees’ emotions — especially when the emotion is anger.
At the same time, when employees are feeling guilty, they are far less likely to engage in unethical behavior than those in a more neutral emotional state, researchers found.
Unethical workplace behavior, ranging from tardiness to theft, costs businesses billions of dollars a year, so it’s important for managers to recognize how emotions may drive on-the-job behavior, says lead study author Daphna Motro, a doctoral student in management and organizations in the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.
“At every level of an organization, every employee is experiencing emotion, so it’s universal, and emotions are really powerful—they can overtake you and make you do things you never thought you were capable of doing,” Motro says.
While research often looks at “negative emotions” as a whole, Motro illustrates in her work that not all negative emotions work in the same way. While anger and guilt are both negative feelings, they have very different effects on behavior.
The reason for the difference, Motro says, is how the two emotions impact processing.
“We found that anger was associated with more impulsive processing, which led to deviant behavior, since deviant behavior is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out,” Motro says. “Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with more careful, deliberate processing—trying to think about what you’ve done wrong, how to fix it—and so it leads to less deviance.”
Anger and guilt
Motro’s findings come from two studies, in which she and her collaborators used writing prompts to induce the desired emotion. The results appear in the Journal of Business Ethics.
Study participants were asked to write about either a time when they felt very angry or a time when they felt very guilty.
“Research has shown that writing about that time, remembering that time, actually brings those feelings back up to the present,” Motro says.
A third, control group was asked to simply describe in writing the last classroom they were in.
In the first study, participants completed a series of simple math problems and were told at the end to award themselves a quarter from an envelope for each correct answer. Those who before the task wrote about a time they were angry awarded themselves significantly more undeserved quarters at the end of the task than the neutral group. Those who had reflected on guilt awarded themselves far fewer undeserved quarters than the control group.
Participants in the second study played a computerized card game. Players started the game with $100 on the screen and were told to report each time a joker card appeared on the screen. For each joker reported, the player would lose $4. Participants were told that two people would be selected at random to take home whatever money was left at the end of the game.
Angry participants cheated more by not reporting jokers, and thereby claimed significantly more undeserved money, while guilty individuals claimed less undeserved money than the neutral group.
In the second study, researchers also used a Cognitive Reflection Test to show how anger and guilt differently affect processing. The test included a series of questions, each of which had an intuitive but incorrect response and a correct solution that would require more deliberation. Angry participants were more likely to respond impulsively and get the answer wrong, while guilty participants were more likely to deliberate and answer correctly.
A ‘spillover effect’
One of the most important findings of the research, Motro says, is that emotions can affect performance even when the feelings are in no way related to the task at hand.
“We show that anger can affect deviance in a completely different context, so if someone experiences anger and then they complete another task that is unassociated with the anger, there’s a spillover effect,” she says.
The consequences of unethical behavior at work are more than just financial, Motro points out. “If you’re an employee and you’re working in an environment that’s uncomfortable or unethical, it leads to less work engagement, less job satisfaction, and more turnover,” she says.
It’s worth noting that in both studies, there was some cheating even in the control groups.
“They cheated a little bit, but not much, which is consistent with the literature that suggests people tend to behave in their self-interest, which can translate into cheating behavior,” Motro says.
No guilt trips
Although guilty study participants behaved the most ethically, employers shouldn’t interpret that as a reason to make their employees feel guilty, Motro cautions.
“Too much guilt can be associated with shame, which is not a pleasant or positive emotional state,” she says.
Instead, bosses should simply be aware of their employees’ emotions and act accordingly. “Pay attention. An employee might be angry, and they might not be angry at you or anything that you’ve done specifically, but just pay careful attention,” Motro says. “Maybe tell them to take a short break and wait for them to cool down.”
Motro conducted the research with coauthors the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.