Affective events theory

Understanding emotions at work has been significantly helped by a model called affective events theory (AET). AET demonstrates that employees react emotionally to things that happen to them at work and that this influences their job performance and satisfaction.

The theory begins by recognizing that emotions are a response to an event in the individual work environment. The work environment includes everything surrounding the job — characteristics of the job such as the variety of tasks and degree of autonomy, job demands, and requirements for expressing emotional labor. This environment created work events that can be hassles, uplifts, or both. Examples of events that employees frequently see as hassles are colleagues who refuse to carry their share of work, conflicting directions by different by different mangers, and excessive time pressures. Examples of uplifting events include meeting a goal, getting support from a colleague and receiving recognition for an accomplishment.

These work events trigger positive or negative emotional reactions. But the events-reaction relationship is moderated by the employee’s personality and mood. Personality pre-disposes people to respond with greater or lesser intensity to the event. For instance, people who score low on emotional stability are more likely to react strongly to negative events. And the individual’s mood introduces the reality that general affect cycle creates fluctuations. So a person’s emotional response to a given event can change depending on his or her mood. Emotions influence a number of performance and satisfaction variables such as organizational citizenship behavior, organizational commitment, intentions to quit, and level of effort.

In addition, tests of the theory suggest that,

(1) An emotional episode is actually a series of emotional experiences precipitated by a single event. It reflects elements of both emotions and mood cycles;

(2) Job satisfaction is influenced by current emotions at any given time along with the history of emotions surrounding the event;

(3) Since moods and emotions fluctuate over time, their effect on performances also fluctuates;

(4) Emotion – driven behaviors are typically short in duration and of high variability;

(5) Because emotions tend to be incompatible with behaviors required to do a job, they typically have a negative influence on job performance (even for positive emotions like happiness and joy).

An example might help better explain AET. Mr. Y works as an aero-nautical engineer for Boeing. Because of the downturn in the demand for commercial jets, he has just learnt that the company is considering retrenching 10,000 employees. This could include ‘Y’. This event is likely to elicit a negative emotional reaction: ‘Y’ has now a fear that he might lose his job and primary source of income. And because ‘Y’ is prone to worry a lot and obsess about problems, his feelings of insecurity are increased. This event also puts into place a series of sub-events that create an episode: ‘Y’ talks with his boss and he is assured that his job is safe; But ‘Y’ hears rumors that his department is high on the list to be eliminated; he then runs into a former colleague who was laid six months ago and still hasn’t found work. This in turn creates emotional ups and downs. One day ‘Y’ is feeling more upbeat and that he’ll survive the cuts. The next day, he is depressed and anxious, convinced that his department will be eliminated. These swings in emotions take his attention away from work and result in reduced job performance and satisfaction. His response is also magnified because this is the fourth large layoff that Boeing has initiated in the past three years.

In summary, AET offers two important messages. First, emotions provide valuable insights into understanding employee behavior. The model demonstrates how daily hassles and uplifts influence employee performance and satisfaction. Second, emotions in organizations and the events that cause them shouldn’t be ignored, even when they appear to be minor. This is because they accumulate. It’s not the intensity of hassles and uplifts that lead to emotional reactions, but more the frequency with which they occur.

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