Since she was young, Ashlea Troth (Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Griffith Business School) has been interested in what makes people tick. Her research interests include multi-level and multi-method approaches to examining emotional regulation and emotional intelligence in workplaces. She is also interested in the day-to-day work experiences of frontline managers and the role of their emotional regulation strategies on wellbeing when performing a range of tasks.
Professor Troth gained her Master of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University and her PhD in Psychology at the University of Queensland. Currently, she is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour in Griffith Business School’s Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources. She is also the Deputy Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing (WOW). Professor Troth has extensive consulting experience and has published in leading journals such as the Journal of Organizational Behavior, The Leadership Quarterly and Human Resource Management.
In this Q&A, Professor Troth explains the importance of emotional regulation and emotional intelligence, and how we can all work toward becoming more emotionally intelligent in our present and future careers.
Q & A:
What sparked your interest in organisational psychology and psychology more generally?
I have always been interested in people and why they behave in certain ways and in different situations. Why some individuals can deal with challenging circumstances and persevere while others spiral downwards. Strangely, I was studying accounting and not enjoying it at all, when a psychologist came to give a lecture on organisational behaviour, which struck a chord. I immediately transferred to a psychology degree.
I began this intending to be a clinical psychologist, but over time realised I was more interested in the broader nonclinical population. We spend one third of our lives at work. How we feel about our jobs and how we are treated at work has a huge impact on our health, wellbeing and performance—which then spills over into our home life. In the end, I thought I could have a broader impact and make a bigger difference by focusing on people in the organisational context.
‘[Emotional regulation and emotional intelligence] are related but distinct, and some of my research shows that individuals higher on certain aspects of EI are better able to regulate and adapt their emotions to fit the situation or context.’
What is ‘emotional regulation’ and ‘emotional intelligence,’ and why are these concepts important?
Emotional regulation (ER) refers to the strategies that we use to either maintain or change the emotions we are having, usually in response to a specific situation or person. For example, I might be feeling anxious about leading a new project and attempt to reduce this feeling by reframing the situation and feeling excitement instead about the challenge. ER research emerged from the child development literature, as our ability to regulate our emotions represent significant developmental milestones. Indeed, our ability to regulate different emotions adjusts and evolves into old age, which I find interesting in terms of an aging workforce.
Now, ER is being robustly applied to research in the work context. Effective leaders and managers do this all the time with their staff: they typically try to increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions during meetings, performance conversations, managing change, etc. The research increasingly shows that the type of regulation strategies used has significant outcomes for work relationships and performance. We also know that the emotions displayed by a leader/manager are contagious. These emotions are ‘caught’ by other workers and can really set the overall positive or negative tone of the group.
Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to our ability to be aware of and manage our own and others’ emotions. ER and EI are related but distinct. Some of my research shows that individuals who rate higher on certain aspects of EI are better able to regulate and adapt their emotions to fit the situation or context. Again, there is now a very robust body of research to show that EI predicts performance (in individuals and in groups) over and above their personality and intelligence.
I am especially interested in researching how the ER and EI of leaders (especially frontline leaders) and groups impacts performance. As a psychologist, the many coldly rational business and decision-making models do not sit well with me. The famous quote, “It’s business. Leave your feelings at the door.” actually makes no business sense to me. Every day in the workplace, we see examples of emotions playing out in effective and ineffective ways with significant outcomes. For example, engagement, innovation and creativity versus bullying, hostility, disengagement and stress. It is not something that can be ignored by organisations and managers. Amazingly enough the ‘affective revolution’, or the study of emotions in workplace settings, did not really take off until 2000. Now most scholars across a broad range of business disciplines recognise the role of emotions, such as in financial decision making and project teams.
‘Not all positive emotions are always good and not all negative emotions are always bad—it’s much more nuanced than that.’
How can individuals work toward becoming more emotionally intelligent within their organisations?
There are lots of practical ways and these are just a few:
- Acknowledge emotions at work.
When we work on logic alone when dealing with other people, we are less likely to be effective if we don’t plan for the emotions that are going to be triggered. How others are feeling gives us important information about their attitudes and underlying motivation. That way, we can respond more appropriately and adaptively. For example, we know that anger tends to be attributed to feelings of injustice or being treated unfairly, while anxiety/fear/trepidation is linked to uncertain or threatening situations. This information is very important to consider prior to engaging in difficult conversations or changes.
- Identify areas in the organisation where a lot of ‘emotion work’ is expected of staff.
This tends to be in customer/client/patient facing roles. Requirements by staff to display certain emotions (happiness, compassion, care, concern) in their job on a continuous basis when they don’t actually feel these emotions is exhausting and ultimately leads to disengagement, burnout and poor performance. Adjustments like ‘emotion breaks,’ job rotations (with time during the day for non-emotion work) and being permitted to show a broader spectrum of emotions all make a difference.
- Use emotions to facilitate thinking.
Not all positive emotions are always good and not all negative emotions are always bad—it’s much more nuanced than that. For example, we know that certain neutral to negative emotions stimulate critical/analytical and systematic thinking and that most negative emotions have an upside. Meanwhile, positive emotions support brainstorming and big picture thinking. So, it is useful to create a mood that matches the task at hand.
- Build up management/regulation skills of your own and others’ emotions.
Think of when, where and how to have conversations. A lot of this comes down to good communication skills. Use open ended questions to understand how someone is feeling and why they are feeling that way. You can learn to harness emotions or mute their impact.
Who has inspired you?
This is a tricky one. There are characteristics I admire in many people. It is not all research or work related either. I think, though, my general work ethic and the high value I place on education and research and evidenced-based thinking comes from my mother (very cliché, I know). As a single mum, she instilled in me very early on the importance of being independent and that education is the key to achieving this. I am the first one in my extended family to go to university, so working at Griffith is a nice fit for me.
What are you currently working on?
I have a couple of projects on the go. I am excited to be continuing some work with colleagues at the University of Manchester on how leaders try to influence their employees’ emotions (for example, instil concern, pride and enthusiasm). We have found that the consequences of these emotional regulation strategies not only depend upon the type of strategy used by the leader but also on the leaders’ apparent motives for doing so. The outcomes for leaders perceived to be trying to improve employee emotions to help the leader/organisation—and not the employee—significantly reduces performance and ongoing relationships with the leader. This contrasts with the uplift we find if the leader is viewed as trying to improve staff mood to help staff. Interesting things also happen if a leader is seen to be trying to worsen employee mood for prosocial reasons (to help the employee) rather than egoistical reasons (to help the leader/organisation).
Other projects that I am eager to continue with my Griffith colleagues include a deep dive into the emotion of fear (and the potential upside of fear) at work and how to help organisations, leaders and employees manage emotion during organisational change.
‘The best researchers poke their heads up and out of their silo and consider their research area through alternative lenses and ways of thinking.’
What advice would you give to upcoming researchers?
There are many pathways to becoming a researcher. So, one piece of advice is to recognise that your opportunities and impact extend beyond universities post-PhD to many different sectors and industries. Also, that our skills as a researcher (critical thinking, data collection and analysis, providing evidence-based recommendations and solutions, etc.) are highly transferrable to many jobs that might not have ‘research’ in their label.
Another lesson learned is that the ‘researcher’ career trajectory is rarely linear and trending upward. There are many bumps along the way, such as failed grant applications, rejected publications and poor data. So, you need to be resilient and have a tough hide. Having said that, most of us are fortunate to spend our work life examining an issue, problem or phenomenon of our choosing that we are passionate about. There are few other jobs or careers where you can do that.
Last but certainly not least, I would really encourage new researchers to read and expose themselves to research outside of their discipline. The best researchers poke their heads up and out of their silo and consider their research area through alternative lenses and ways of thinking. It also avoids the many cases of ‘old wine in new bottles’ research that occurs where a well-established idea or body of work in one area is presented as a new idea in a different discipline. To be a better researcher, build upon and extend the knowledge that already exists.