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    Knowledge creation on China, from proven China experts.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Can negative emotions be channelled into positive outcomes during the COVID-19 crisis?

By Flora Chiang

Emotions are a natural and instinctive state of the mind which arise from one’s mood and external stimuli, including from crises and periods of great uncertainty such as that created by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As a general rule, anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, insecurity, boredom, and other negative emotions are discouraged. For example, when someone is upset, we tend to encourage him/her to look at things in a more positive way – every cloud has a silver lining. By changing the way we view a situation, or altering our perspective, we can often change how we feel. But this raises a number of questions. Does eliminating negative emotions make us more positive? Instead of suppressing our negative emotions, is it possible to leverage them to produce something positive? Can negative emotions be motivating or even productive?

Evidence from the psychology literature offers us some hints about these and other related questions. For example, sadness has been found to increase empathy; anxiety has been shown to improve individuals’ ability to solve problems; and anger may make individuals work harder, be more attentive when solving work problems, elicit more concessions during negotiation, and enhance leader effectiveness. Research on boredom also suggests that it can be meaningful to motivate and inspire individuals to be more creative. Bored individuals have been found to come up with a greater number of creative ideas and answers than those in a non-bored control group (Mann & Cadman, 2014) and boredom itself can boost individual productivity during idea-generation tasks (Park et al., 2019). During the COVID-19 lockdown, there has been a lot of creativity taking place, as abundant examples of innovative ideas and developments showcased on social media attest. In other words, negative emotions can in fact motivate and drive individuals to produce something positive.

The point of this discussion is to suggest that people should not be made to feel bad because they are experiencing negative emotions. After all, it is not easy to turn off negative emotions or transform them into positive emotions overnight. What is more, ignoring or suppressing negative emotions may also have undesirable consequences on individuals’ psychological health and well-being. Moreover, individuals should be encouraged to embrace their negative emotions. One way to help those suffering from negative emotions is to encourage them to take part in activities that they normally would not participate in, as engaging in something “new” or ‘different’ engages their mind and attention which, in turn, can provide some relief from negative emotions. They could also be encouraged to create something new or solve a complex problem, especially something that can be recognised by others, because the process of creation (e.g., product developed) is an excellent form of therapy. Not only does engaging in such a process provide a distraction – creating something tangible and being recognised by others activates the ‘brain’s reward centre’, which can alleviate stress from negative emotions. 

A final thought. We cannot always control our emotions – apparently only Vulcans are capable of that. We need to recognise that negative emotions are natural, especially during challenging times such as the present circumstances borne about by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also need to recognise that leveraging negative emotions can have potential value. For organisations, this means that during this period of uncertainty, effort should be placed on encouraging employees to take up new challenges, think outside the box, focus their attention on solving problems, and sink their teeth into complex challenges facing the organisation, the fruits of which may be surprising, important, and valuable.

Flora Chiang is a Professor of Management at CEIBS. For more on her teaching and research interests, please visit her faculty profile here.

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