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Managing perceptions of distress at work: Reframing emotion as passion

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Expressing distress at work can have negative consequences for employees: observers perceive employees who express distress as less competent than employees who do not. Across five experiments, we explore how reframing a socially inappropriate emotional expression (distress) by publicly attributing it to an appropriate source (passion) can shape perceptions of, and decisions about, the person who expressed emotion. In Studies 1a-c, participants viewed individuals who reframed distress as passion as more competent than those who attributed distress to emotionality or made no attribution. In Studies 2a-b, reframing emotion as passion shifted interpersonal decision-making: participants were more likely to hire job candidates and choose collaborators who reframed their distress as passion compared to those who did not. Expresser gender did not moderate these effects. Results suggest that in cases when distress expressions cannot or should not be suppressed, reframing distress as passion can improve observers’ impressions of the expresser.
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Managing Perceptions of Distress at Work:
Reframing Emotion as Passion
Elizabeth Baily Wolfa
Jooa Julia Leeb
Sunita Sahc
Alison Wood Brooksd
a Corresponding Author: Harvard Business School, Cotting 300E, Soldiers Field Road, Boston,
MA 02163, ebaily@hbs.edu, (301) 346-0677;
b The University of Michigan, The Stephen M. Ross School of Business, 701 Tappan Ave,
R4661, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, jooalee@umich.edu;
c Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School of Management, Sage Hall 326, Ithaca, New
York, 14853, sunitasahcmu@gmail.com;
d Harvard Business School, Baker Library 463, Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02163,
awbrooks@hbs.edu
Author Notes
The authors thank Francesca Gino for her help with data collection, and Maurice Schweitzer,
Emma E. Levine, Robin Ely, Deborah Kolb, Debra Noumair, Jessica Porter, Kathleen McGinn,
Amy Cuddy, Rachel Arnett, and members of the Harvard Business School OB Lab for their
feedback on earlier versions of our data and manuscript. We appreciate the financial support of
the Harvard Business School. We are grateful for research assistance from Tiffany Song and
Jean Sohn. Please address correspondence to: Elizabeth Baily Wolf, Cotting 300E, Harvard
Business School, Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02163; ebaily@hbs.edu.
*Title Page
MANAGING PERCEPTIONS OF DISTRESS
Highlights:
x Introduces strategy for after inappropriate expression: emotion reframing.
x Employees who reframed distress as passion perceived as more competent.
x Participants more likely to hire candidate who reframed distress as passion.
x Participants more likely to choose a work partner who reframed as passion.
*Highlights (for review)
Reframing Emotion as Passion
1
Managing Impressions of Distress at Work:
Reframing Emotion as Passion
Abstract
Expressing distress at work can have negative consequences for employees: observers
perceive employees who express distress as less competent than employees who do not. Across
five experiments, we explore how reframing a socially inappropriate emotional expression
(distress) by publicly attributing it to an appropriate source (passion) can shape perceptions of,
and decisions about, the person who expressed emotion. In Studies 1a-c, participants viewed
individuals who reframed distress as passion as more competent than those who attributed
distress to emotionality or made no attribution. In Studies 2a-b, reframing emotion as passion
shifted interpersonal decision-making: participants were more likely to hire job candidates and
choose collaborators who reframed their distress as passion compared to those who did not.
Expresser gender did not moderate these effects. Results suggest that in cases when distress
expressions cannot or should not be suppressed, reframing distress as passion can improve
observers impressions of the expresser.
Keywords: Distress; Passion; Reframing; Emotion regulation; Impression management; Social
perception; Emotional expression
*Manuscript
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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Managing Impressions of Distress at Work:
Reframing Emotion as Passion
Imagine you are working on a high-profile project with two senior colleagues whom you
want to impress. In addition to a looming deadline to present the project to your clients, you also
feel pressure to complete the project successfully before an upcoming performance review. In a
meeting with your colleagues, you are discussing several major changes to the presentation when
your computer suddenly crashes, deleting all of your recent work. You feel frustrated,
disappointed, defeated, upset. You worry that expressing your distress openly will cause your
colleagues to view you as incompetent but you are unable to hide how you feel. After you
express your distress, you wish you could take it back, but it is too late.
In the current work, we propose a novel strategy that individuals may use to alter
observers’ impressions after an expression of emotion has occurred: reframing the emotional
expression. We define emotion reframing as the process of publicly attributing a socially
inappropriate emotional expression to a socially appropriate source. In this paper, we test
whether individuals can improve observers’ perceptions of their competence following a display
of distress by reframing their emotion as passion. In addition to suggesting a practical strategy to
help individuals in organizations, this research makes important theoretical contributions to the
literatures on emotion regulation and impression management (e.g., Leary & Kowalski, 1990).
Expressions of Distress
In this paper, we study distress (a construct that subsumes several negative discrete
emotions), rather than studying a specific discrete negative emotion such as anxiety or sadness.
We focus on distress because we are interested in observers’ perceptions of emotional
expressions, not individuals’ experiences of their own emotions. Although individuals may be
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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aware of the specific discrete emotions they are experiencing, expressions of these emotions
often appear similar to observers. For example, an employee may cry because he feels sad,
disappointed, anxious, or frustrated. All of these emotions are what we would term distress. They
are characterized by negative valence, lack of control, and a need for assistance (Smith &
Ellsworth, 1985; Van Kleef, De Dreu, & Manstead, 2010). Importantly, however, distress is
distinct from other-directed anger. Although both anger and distress are negatively-valenced
emotions, displays of anger are associated with competence and power, whereas distress is
associated with incompetence and dependence (e.g., Barrett & Bliss-Moreau, 2009; Fischer,
Eagly, & Oosterwijk, 2013; Tiedens, 2000, 2001; Van Kleef, De Dreu, & Manstead, 2010).
People often feel distressed at work, triggered both by negative events at work and by
non-work situations that carry over into the workplace (e.g., Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996).
Working individuals tend to feel significantly more distress during the workweek than on
weekends (e.g., Stone, Schneider, & Harter, 2012), caused by events such as being assigned
undesirable work, experiencing interpersonal conflict with supervisors, co-workers, or
customers, being subjected to discrimination, negotiating for compensation, or receiving or
delivering negative feedback (Brief & Weiss, 2002; Brooks & Schweitzer, 2011; Elfenbein,
2007; Mignonac & Herrbach, 2004; Vingerhoets, Cornelius, Van Heck, & Becht, 2000). As
evidence of the pervasiveness of distress in the workplace, we asked 202 people who work full-
time1 to indicate whether they had experienced distress at work. Ninety nine percent of
participants said that they had experienced distress at least once, and 54.7% indicated that they
experience the emotion at least once a week. Experiencing distress predicts important work
outcomes such as lower job satisfaction, decreased feelings of personal accomplishment, and
1 Recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (57 women, Mage=31.46)
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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increased emotional exhaustion, absenteeism, and turnover intentions (see Thoresen, Kaplan,
Barsky, Warren, & de Chermont, 2003 for a meta-analysis and review).
Although people experience distress often at work, they may or may not wish to express
how they feel to others. People often avoid expressing distress in professional contexts because
doing so would violate workplace display rules (i.e., norms about the appropriateness of
emotional expressions; Diefendorff & Greguras, 2008; Ekman & Friesen, 1969). Workplace
display rules often encourage employees to express or even exaggerate positive feelings such as
happiness, and to avoid expressions of distress (e.g., crying, getting choked up, appearing visibly
sad, anxious, or frustrated), to please customers and maintain harmony with co-workers (e.g.,
Diefendorff & Richard, 2008; Grandey, 2000; Hochschild, 1983; Rafaeli & Sutton, 1987).
However, although individuals may not wish to express their distress, suppressing distress is
difficult, is often ineffective, and may limit effective communication about problems or conflicts
(e.g., Geddes & Callister, 2007; Hofmann, Heering, Sawyer, & Asnaani, 2009).
Expressions of distress in the workplace often lead the expresser to feel embarrassed and
observers to feel uncomfortable and unsure how to respond (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 2001;
Plas & Hoover-Dempsey, 1988). Observers may also draw negative conclusions about the
expresser’s disposition and ability to perform well at work, often inferring that the expresser is
less independent and competent than before the expression (e.g., Cornelius & Labott, 2001;
Frijda, 1986; Tiedens, 2000, 2001; Tiedens, Ellsworth, & Mesquita, 2000; Van Kleef, De Dreu,
& Manstead, 2010).
Cognitive Reappraisal
People use a variety of strategies to regulate their emotions. One pervasive and much-
studied emotion regulation strategy is cognitive reappraisal (Gross, 1998; Gross & John, 2003).
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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Cognitive reappraisal involves changing how one thinks about a situation to change its emotional
impact (Gross, 2002). For example, an individual may reappraise a failure as a learning
opportunity, leading him to feel hope instead of disappointment. One way to cognitively
reappraise a negative emotion is to reappraise the arousal associated with it as a different,
positive emotion (e.g., Blascovich, 2008; Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013; Schacter & Singer,
1962). For example, Brooks (2013) found that individuals can easily reappraise the arousal
associated with pre-performance anxiety as the closely-related positive emotion, excitement. In
this paper, we investigate how the process of reappraising negative emotions as positive could
operate interpersonally.
Though a large body of literature has examined how cognitive reappraisal affects the
intrapsychic experience of emotions, most of these studies focus on how individuals regulate
their own emotions in solitude (e.g., Zaki & Williams, 2013). Extant work that has explored the
interpersonal dynamics of emotion regulation has focused on how the individual who
experiences the emotion may rely on the presence of others to regulate his or her own internal
feelings (e.g., by “venting;” Rimé, 2007; Zaki & Williams, 2013).
Other work has explored how observers evaluate individuals who use cognitive
reappraisal to alter their own emotional experiences before an emotion is expressed (e.g., Coté,
2005; Grandey, 2003). For example, Chi, Grandey, Diamond, and Krimmel (2011) found a
positive relationship between customer ratings of restaurant servers and the degree to which the
servers modified their inner feelings through cognitive reappraisal (i.e., deep acting). Previous
research, however, has not explored how individuals may reappraise their emotions after they
have been expressed, or how they might publicly reframe their emotions to influence observers’
perceptions.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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Reframing Emotional Expressions
In the current work, we explore emotion reframinghow reframing a socially
inappropriate emotional expression by publicly attributing it to an appropriate source can shape
observers’ perceptions. Like cognitive reappraisal, emotion reframing involves a shift from one
appraisal of an emotion to another. However, whereas cognitive reappraisal is private and
intrapsychic, reframing is public and interpersonal. Similar to the way cognitive reappraisal
causes emotional individuals to alter the trajectory of their own emotional responses because
they reinterpret the meaning of a situation, reframing causes observers to alter the trajectory of
their perceptions because they reinterpret the meaning of the observed emotional expression.
We expect emotion reframing to be effective because the interpretation of emotional
expressions a) is context-dependent and b) relies on observers’ inferences about expressers’
invisible emotional states. Although there are unique facial expressions for certain emotions,
other emotional states do not have unique expressions (e.g., disappointment and sadness share an
expression; Ekman, 1993). Further, the same expression may convey one of several dramatically
different emotions, depending on the context or assumptions of the perceiver (Aviezer et al.,
2008; Barrett, Mequita, Gendron, 2011; Carroll & Russell, 1996). For example, the majority of
participants believed a disgusted facial expression was anger when the context suggested anger,
and pride when the context suggested pride (Aviezer et al., 2008). In addition, even if the
emotional state of an expresser seems clear and unambiguous based on their emotional
expression, the underlying cause of that emotional state is generally unclear to observers.
Because individuals emotions are subjective experiences that arise in response to their particular
subjective appraisals and interpretations (e.g., Frijda, 1988), it is impossible for observers to be
certain of the cause of others’ emotional expressions. Because observers cannot be certain of the
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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true cause of expressers’ emotions, they are likely to be influenced by how the cause of an
emotional expression is framed.
We suspect that emotional expressions can be reframed by the expresser, by another
observer, or by the observer him- or herself. Importantly, emotion reframing by the expresser
does not require internal reappraisal. For example, a man whose voice cracks and hands shake
during a presentation may appraise his own emotional state as “anxious” privately, but may still
alter observers’ perceptions by saying publicly that his expression was caused by his
“excitement.”
Passion Versus Emotionality
We investigate whether reframing expressions of distress as triggered by passion versus
emotionality influences observers’ perceptions and interpersonal behavior. Both passion and
emotion refer to strong feelings that may elicit intense positive or negative emotional
expressions. Both passion and emotion arise in response to events or activities that are important
to individuals’ goals, motives, or concerns: people only feel passionate or emotional about things
that they care about (e.g., Frijda, 1988; Vallerand & Houlfort, 2003). Further, both passion and
emotion may refer to either a temporary feeling (e.g., “Alan is passionate/emotional about this
particular event”) or a steady trait across time (e.g., “Alan is a passionate/emotional person”).
However, people perceive passion and emotion differently in important ways.
Emotionality has long been considered the enemy of rationality (for a review, see Ashforth &
Humphrey, 1995), whereas passion is widely accepted as an important value in organizational
contexts (Cardon, Wincent, Signh, & Drnovsek, 2009; Shields 2005). For example, McKinsey &
Company lists “passion, dedication, and energy” as the first criteria they seek in new hires
(“What we look for,” n.d., para. 1), Boston Consulting Group lists a commitment to “succeeding
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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together with passion” in their mission statement (“Mission,” n.d., para. 4), and Bain &
Company states that “passion about making a measurable impact” is one of its core values
(“People and Values,” n.d., para. 1). Similarly, academic scholars identify passion as an
important predictor of success, commitment, and work performance because it is linked to
greater motivation and sustained effort over time (e.g., Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly,
2007; Vallerand et al., 2003). In general, passion is associated with determination, motivation,
and a high degree of self-control, whereas emotionality is associated with instability, ineptitude,
and a lack of self-control (Shields, 2007).
Because passion may cause emotional expressions but is widely accepted as valuable and
socially appropriate in organizational contexts, we expect that attributing expressions of distress
to passion, as opposed to emotionality or not making an attribution, will improve observers’
perceptions of the expresser’s competence, and increase the likelihood of favorable decision-
making by the observer (e.g., hiring decisions, partner selection). We therefore hypothesize that:
Hypothesis 1: Reframing distress as “passion” will increase perceptions of competence
compared to attributing distress to emotionality or not making an attribution.
Hypothesis 2: Reframing distress as “passion” will increase the likelihood of observers
making favorable interpersonal decisions toward the expresser compared to attributing
distress to emotionality or not making an attribution.
Gender as a Moderator
The tendency to attribute emotional displays to passion versus emotionality is inherently
gendered. Historically, psychologists have identified male emotion as “a passionate force evident
in the drive to achieve, to create, and to dominate” and female emotion as an “unstable
sensitivity of feelings toward oneself and others” (Shields, 2007, p. 97). Although a common
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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stereotype is that women display more emotion than men, actual gender differences in the
expression of emotions are far less dramatic than stereotypes would suggest (e.g., Fischer, 2000;
LaFrance & Banaji, 1992). But when men and women show emotion, their expressions are
understood within the context of broader gender stereotypes: men are stereotyped as agentic,
motivated, and strong, whereas women are communal, gentle, and expressive (e.g., Kite, Deaux,
& Haines, 2008). Therefore, when men and women display emotion at work, their emotions are
interpreted as stemming from different traits: men’s passion is a demonstration of their agency,
motivation, and strength, whereas women’s emotionality is a demonstration of their
communality, gentility, and general expressiveness (Shields, 2007).
Because of the historical association between men’s emotion and passion and women’s
emotion and emotionality, we believe that, with no attribution for the distress, observers will
associate men’s emotional displays with passion more so than women’s emotional displays. We
therefore predict that:
Hypothesis 3: There will be an interaction between expressers gender and the
attribution made for their emotional display, such that the effect of reframing distress as
passion will be stronger for female expressers than for male expressers.
Overview of Studies
We test our hypotheses across five experiments. In Studies 1a-c, we test whether emotion
reframing influences interpersonal perceptions of competence (Hypothesis 1). In Studies 2a-b,
we test whether emotion reframing influences interpersonal decision-making that involves
emotionally expressive individuals (Hypothesis 2). Across Studies 1 and 2, we explore how the
gender of an expresser influences observers’ perceptions of the expresser’s competence, and how
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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the gender of the expresser may moderate the effect of emotion reframing on perceptions of
competence (Hypothesis 3).
Study 1: Emotion Reframing and Perceptions of Competence
In Studies 1a-c, we examine how reframing distress as passion shapes observers’ ratings
of an expressers’ competence in three diverse contexts. In Study 1a, we use vignettes to examine
how reframing an emotional expression can shape perceivers’ impressions of an expresser’s
competence. In Study 1b, we examine how reframing shapes perceptions of competence in a
face-to-face interaction. In Study 1c, we examine how reframing influences perceptions of
participants’ current or former colleagues who have expressed distress in the past.
Study 1a: Emotion Reframing in a Workplace Vignette
Method
Participants and procedure. We aimed to recruit 240 participants from Amazon’s
Mechanical Turk. Two hundred and forty-one (106 women, Mage=34.10) American workers
participated in exchange for $0.25. After providing consent, participants read the following
description of a distress display:
Samuel [Samantha] works in the advertising department of a large firm. He [She] is
currently working with three coworkers on a team. Samuel [Samantha] has become
increasingly sad with the team dynamic. One day he [she] breaks down and begins crying
in front of his [her] teammates. He [She] buries his [her] face in his [her] hands.
In addition to manipulating the gender of the focal actor, there were four attribution
conditions: passion attribution, emotional attribution, and two control conditions: no attribution
and apology. In the no attribution condition, participants read the vignette above. In the passion
attribution condition, the vignette also read: “and says, ‘I’m sorry, I am just really passionate
about this,’” in the emotionality attribution condition, it read: “and says, ‘I’m sorry, I am just
really emotional about this,’” and in the apology condition, it read: “and says, ‘I’m sorry.’” This
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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produced a 4 (Attribution: passion, emotionality, apology-only, none) x 2 (Employee Gender:
male, female) between-subjects experimental design.
Participants then evaluated the employee on measures of conferred status (Tiedens, 2001;
sample items include: “Sam seems powerful,” “Sam should be put in a leadership position) and
competence (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002; “competent,” “capable, “intelligent,”
“confident”) on seven-point scales.2 These scales were highly correlated (r = .82) and loaded
onto a single factor. Therefore, we collapsed them into a single scale of perceived competence
(D=.93).
Results
Manipulation check. To check that participants saw the passionate employee as more
passionate than the other conditions, we conducted a one-way ANOVA on the item “Sam seems
passionate. We found a main effect of attribution condition on perceptions of passion, F(3,
235)=7.39, p<.001, Kp2=.09. As expected, planned contrasts demonstrated that participants in the
passion condition (M=6.10, SD=1.09) rated the employee as significantly more passionate than
did participants in the emotionality condition (M=5.39, SD=1.46), p=.002, the apology condition
(M=5.23, SD=1.11), p<.001, or the no attribution condition (M=5.16, SD=1.20), p<.001.
Perceived competence. We tested Hypotheses 1 and 3 by conducting a 4 (Attribution:
passion, emotionality, apology, no attribution) x 2 (Target Gender: male, female) factorial
ANOVA with planned contrasts comparing the passion attribution with the three other
conditions. As hypothesized, we found a significant main effect of attribution condition on
perceived competence, F(3, 235)=4.70, p=.003, Kp2=.06. Employees who attributed their distress
display to passion (M=3.68, SD=1.07) were perceived as more competent than were those who
2 We also measured warmth (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002) and perceived appropriateness. We chose to exclude
these analyses from the manuscript for the sake of brevity, however, these results are available from the authors.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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attributed their distress display to emotionality (M=3.25, SD=0.92), p=.01, those who only
apologized (M=3.39, SD=0.94), p=.09, or those who provided no attribution (M=3.06, SD=0.81),
p<.001. The main effect of employee gender was also significant, such that Samantha (M=3.49,
SD=0.97) was seen as significantly more competent than Samuel (M=3.19, SD=0.93), F(1,
235)=6.22, p=.01, Kp2=.03. However, the interaction effect between attribution and gender was
not statistically significant, p=.29.
Discussion
Consistent with Hypothesis 1, participants rated an employee who reframed distress as
passion as more competent than an employee who framed distress as emotionality. Attributing a
display of distress to passion also improved ratings on these variables compared to no attribution
or a simple apology. However, we did not find support for Hypothesis 3; although we predicted
that gender would play a moderating role, men and women benefitted similarly from attributing
their emotional displays to passion. We did, however, find that women who expressed distress
were rated as more competent than men, suggesting that men may be penalized more for
expressing high-intensity distress (i.e., crying) than women.
Study 1b: Emotion Reframing in Face-to-Face Interactions
In Study 1b, we deepen our examination of emotion reframing by measuring perceptions
during live interactions. We explore how individuals react to expressers who attribute their
distress to passion versus emotionality in face-to-face encounters.
Method
Participants. We aimed to recruit 100 dyads (200 individuals) and ended our final
session with 101 dyads. Two hundred and two (130 women, Mage=23.56) students in the Boston
Reframing Emotion as Passion
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area participated in the study in exchange for $10 or $15.3 Of the 101 dyads that participated, 9
dyads knew each other outside of the study and were therefore excluded from the analyses.
Procedure. We recruited participants in even-numbered groups to participate in a study
about “Stories about negative experiences with school work.” Upon entering the behavioral
laboratory, participants were randomly assigned to either be a “Story-Teller” or a “Listener.” We
directed Story-Tellers to begin filling out a survey on a computer, and Listeners to small rooms
to wait for their partners.
Participants in the Story-Teller condition were asked to recall a recent time when they
became distressed about something related to academic work and to write a few sentences
summarizing what happened. Next, we asked participants to list the emotions they experienced
during the incident. After summarizing the distressing incident and describing the emotions they
experienced, we randomly assigned individuals to one of two emotion reframing condition:
passionate or emotional. In the passionate condition, participants read:
Research shows that emotions only arise in response to events that are important to
people’s goals or motives (Frijda, 1998). People only feel emotions about things that
matter to them. Research also shows that talking about how your emotional reactions stem
from your passion makes people perceive you in a positive light.
In the emotional condition, participants read:
Research shows that different emotions arise in response to different circumstances
(Frijda, 1998). People feel different emotions in different situations. Research also shows
that people may feel distressed at work or school for a wide variety of reasons.
Participants in the passionate [emotional] condition then read:
In your chat with your partner, please focus on how your emotional reaction in the
situation you described shows how passionate [emotional] you are about goals that are
important to you. We know this may be a bit challenging or uncomfortable, but please do
3 Pay was increased from $10 to $15 to recruit additional participants after the first 140
participants completed the study. We did not control for this change in their incentives in our
analyses after confirming that there were no significant effects of payment.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
14
your very best to consider how your reaction shows that you feel passionate [emotional]
about your academic work. Please write 3-5 sentences below about how your reaction
shows that you feel passionate [emotional] about your academic work.
After writing about their passion or emotionality, participants read that they would be
discussing the events they described with their partner. We reproduced their answers to all
questions in one paragraph, and we asked them to hand write this paragraph onto a piece of paper
to bring with them to their meeting with their partner. We chose to have participants re-write
their answers because this would help them remember the information they had written, and
because it allowed participants to slightly alter their story if they wished not to discuss certain
details with their partners.
We then escorted participants to the small group room to meet with their partner. Story-
Tellers read their distressing events to their partners, and discussed them for as long as they
wished. Most dyads spoke for between 5 and 15 minutes. We interrupted 3 dyads because they
were still speaking when the scheduled time for the study was nearly over (after roughly 25
minutes). Participants in the Story-Teller condition were then excused from the study.
Participants in the Listener condition filled out their perceptions of their partners’
competence and status (using the same items as in Study 1a) and self-control (“This person
seems to have control over him/herself,” “This co-worker has a lot of self-control,” “This person
seems to have control over his/her emotions” D=.83). The items measuring competence, status,
and self-control were highly correlated (rs>.74, ps< .01) and loaded onto a single factor, and so
were combined to form the perceived competence scale (D=.94). Listeners also answered items
assessing the Story-Teller’s passion and emotion (using the same items used in Study 1a) and
perceived distress (using two items “This person seemed distressed” and “This person seemed
upset,” D=.78). After reporting their perceptions, Listeners briefly described the story their
Reframing Emotion as Passion
15
partner told, indicated whether or not their partner said that he or she was passionate, and
indicated whether they were acquainted with their partner before the study.
Results
Manipulation checks. Listeners in the passionate condition indicated that their partners
said they were passionate 71.7% of the time, whereas Listeners in the emotional condition
indicated that their partners said were passionate 29.9% of the time, F2 (1, N=92) = 15.70,
p<.001. We also conducted a repeated measures ANOVA on the items “My partner seemed
passionate” and “My partner seemed emotional” using condition as a between-subjects factor.
We found the expected interaction effect, F(1, 90)=9.59, p=.003, Kp2=.10. As expected, Listeners
in the passion condition (M=5.66, SD=1.17) rated Story-Tellers as more passionate than those in
the emotional condition (M=5.00, SD=1.54), p=.02. Participants rated Story-Tellers as
marginally more emotional in the emotionality condition (M=4.51, SD=1.66) than in the
passionate condition (M=4.00, SD=1.29), p=.10.
Perceived competence. To test Hypotheses 1 and 3, we conducted a 2 (Attribution:
passionate, emotional) x 2 (Story-Teller Gender: male, female) factorial ANOVA on ratings of
perceived competence. As predicted, Listeners whose partners had reframed their distress as
passion indicated that their partner was significantly more competent (M=5.59, SD=0.80) than
those in the emotional condition (M=5.22, SD=0.95), F(1,88)=3.99, p=.049, Kp2=.04. There was
also a marginally significant main effect of gender, with Listeners rating female Story-Tellers as
more competent (M=5.53, SD=0.89) than male Story-Tellers (M=5.23, SD=0.85), F(1,88)=2.89,
p=.09, Kp2=.03. The interaction between gender and condition was not significant, p=.94.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
16
Perceived distress. The same 2 (Attribution: passionate, emotional) x 2 (Story-Teller
Gender: male, female) factorial ANOVA on ratings of perceived distress revealed no significant
interaction or main effects, ps>.25.
Discussion
Consistent with Study 1a, we found support for Hypothesis 1: Listeners perceived Story-
Tellers who reframed their distress as “passion” as significantly more competent than Story-
Tellers who reframed their distress as “emotion. Again, consistent with Study 1a, we failed to
find support for Hypothesis 3: men and women benefitted similarly from reframing their distress
experiences as reflecting passion. However, as in Study 1a, Listeners rated women as more
competent than men when they discussed distressing experiences.
Listeners in both the passionate and the emotional conditions perceived their partners as
similarly distressed, suggesting that individuals did not find their partners less emotionally
expressive when they referred to their emotion as passion. This finding suggests that individuals
who attribute their distress expressions to passion rather than emotion communicate a similar
level of distress to observers, while not incurring the same social costs.
Study 1c: Emotion Reframing in a Field Setting
In Study 1c, we test our hypotheses in a field setting. We asked fully-employed adults to
recall a recent time when a colleague appeared visibly distressed at work and to think about how
their colleague’s expression demonstrated passion or emotionality.
This study allowed us to test two potential moderators of the effect of emotion reframing
on perceptions of competence. First, we investigate the effect of organizational display rules.
Employees in organizations with restrictive display rules (i.e., in which emotional expressions
are less appropriate) may benefit from a larger effect of emotion reframing than employees in
Reframing Emotion as Passion
17
organizations with relatively permissive display rules (i.e., in which emotional expressions are
more appropriate). Second, we explore the effect of relationship closeness between the expresser
and perceiver. Relationship closeness is positively correlated with comfort with expressing
negative emotions (e.g., Diefendorff & Richard, 2008; Gross & John, 2003). Therefore, we
expect that the effect of emotion reframing will be particularly beneficial between people who
have a less close relationship compared to those who have a closer relationship.
Method
Participants. We aimed to recruit 500 participants through Clear Voice, a company that
recruits panels of employed individuals for researchers (see www.clearvoice.com for more
information).4 We obtained 437 responses before the completion deadline. We excluded twenty-
two participants who could not write about a recent time when their colleague showed distress.
This left 415 responses for analysis (214 women, Mage=48.39).
Participants worked in a variety of industries (e.g., finance, health care, education,
government, law enforcement, legal, retail, manufacturing, etc.) and at a variety of levels (e.g.,
office assistants, vice presidents, chief officers [CEOs or COOs], etc.). Participants wrote about a
variety of recent incidents in which their co-workers appeared visibly distressed, including 256
(61.8%) descriptions of incidents about women and 158 (38.2%) descriptions of incidents about
men. Seven percent of incidents had happened the day the participant completed the survey,
31.1% had happened within the past week, 63.2% within the past month, and 78.7% within the
past two months (the remainder had happened more than 2 months earlier). All events took place
in the United States.
Procedure. Participants read the prompt, “Please recall a particular time from the recent
4 We told Clear Voice that our object was “Conduct a 10-15-minute online study of 500
participants. They must be employed adults ages 18+.”
Reframing Emotion as Passion
18
past when one of your co-workers became visibly upset at work about something work-related.
Try to remember a specific moment from within the past 2-3 months (the more recent, the better)
when it was obvious to you that your co-worker felt upset. Please write a few sentences below
describing the situation as objectively as possible.” Asking participants to describe the situation
before asking them to reframe it ensured that any results would not be the result of participants
recalling different types of incidents in the two conditions. Next, participants read the following
instructions:
Now, please think about all the ways in which this incident shows how passionate
[emotional] this co-worker is. Please write a few sentences below about how this incident
demonstrates that this co-worker is a passionate [an emotional] person.
Participants then indicated the extent to which they agreed with various statements (on 1
to 7 Likert-typed scales), including the same questions about status, competence, and self-control
used in Study 1b (we removed 1 item from the self-control scale and 2 items each from the
competence and status scales to reduce the time required for the survey). Again, the three scales
were highly correlated (rs>.85) and loaded onto a single factor, and so were combined into a
single scale of perceived competence (D=.96).
We then asked participants about the display rules of their workplace and the closeness of
their relationship with the co-worker. To assess display rules, we modified two items from the
Display Rule Assessment Inventory (Matsumoto, Yoo, Hirayama, & Petrova, 2005; “When
upset, people at this workplace usually try to hide their true feelings” and “When upset, people at
this workplace usually express how they feel with no inhibitions” [reverse-coded]; D=.74).5 To
5 Individuals in organizations with stricter display rules should theoretically express distress less
often than individuals in organizations with more permissive display rules. Therefore, if our
scale of display rules is valid, participants reporting stricter display rules should have observed
displays less recently than participants reporting more permissive display rules. To test this, we
correlated the variable assessing time passed since the display and the display rule scale. Because
Reframing Emotion as Passion
19
assess relationship closeness, participants indicated, on a seven-point scale ranging from two
non-overlapping circles to two almost entirely-overlapping circles, how close they were with this
co-worker (i.e., the inclusion of other in the self scale, adapted from Aron, Aron, & Smollan,
1992).
Results
Perceived competence. To test Hypotheses 1 and 3, we conducted a 2 (Attribution:
passionate, emotional) x 2 (Co-worker Gender: male, female) factorial ANOVA. As
hypothesized, when participants wrote about how passionate their co-workers were (M=5.07,
SD=1.52), they rated them as significantly more competent than when they wrote about how
emotional they were (M=4.70, SD=1.65), F(1, 410)=6.32, p=.01, Kp2=.02. We found no main
effect of co-worker gender, p=.23, or interaction between co-worker gender and attribution,
p=.17.
Display Rules as Moderator. To test if workplace display rules moderated the effect of
emotion reframing condition on ratings of competence, we conducted a multiple regression
analysis. We included emotion reframing condition, ratings of display rules, and the interaction
term as predictor variables, and our index of perceived competence as the dependent variable.
We found a main effect of emotion reframing condition on perceptions of competence (E=.12,
p=.02), and a marginal interaction effect between display rules and emotion reframing condition
(E=.12, p=.095). The main effect of display rules (E=-.09, p=.23) was not significant.
When display rules were relatively more permissive of showing emotion (i.e., were one
standard deviation below the mean), passion and emotionality attributions did not elicit different
the variable assessing length of time since the display was ordinal, not interval, we ran a
Spearman correlation. As expected, there was a significant positive correlation between the
reported time passed since the display and the reported restrictiveness of organizational display
rules, rs(406)=.15, p=.003.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
20
perceptions of competence p=.63, but when display rules were average (i.e., at the mean) or
restrictive (i.e., one standard above the means), reframing distress as passion significantly
improved perceptions of competence (p=.02 and p=.005 respectively). We depict these results in
Figure 1.
===============
Insert Figure 1 about here
===============
Relationship Closeness as Moderator. In a similar regression analysis, we examined the
impact of relationship closeness on perceived competence. We found a main effect of closeness
(E=.53, p<.001), a marginal main effect of emotion reframing condition (E=.08, p=.07), but no
significant interaction (E=.004, p=.94).
Discussion
In Study 1c, we found support for Hypothesis 1 that prompting individuals to attribute
their co-workers’ distress expressions to “passion” versus “emotionality” altered perceptions of
their co-workers’ competence. Notably, in this study, the observer themself was responsible for
reframing another person’s distress expression, suggesting that emotion reframing can be
initiated by the emotional actor or by the observer.
We also found evidence that organizational display rules moderate the effect of
reframing: reframing emotion as passion was especially helpful for participants who worked in
environments that discourage the open expression of emotion. Relationship closeness between
the expresser and the observer did not moderate the effect of emotion reframing on perceptions
of competence.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
21
Consistent with the prior studies, we did not find support for Hypothesis 3. The gender of
the co-worker did not interact with emotion reframing on perceptions of competence. In all three
studies, making a passion attribution was equally beneficial for both men and women following a
distress expression. Unlike in Studies 1a-b, we did not find that the gender of the expresser
influenced ratings of competence.
Study 2: Emotion Reframing and Interpersonal Decisions
In Studies 1a-c, we examined how reframing an expression of distress as passion
influenced perceptions of competence in the workplace, but we did not evaluate how these
perceptions might influence interpersonal decision-making. In Studies 2a-b, we test Hypothesis
2how emotion reframing influences choice in two consequential behavioral domains: hiring
and work partner selection. In Study 2a, we explore how reframing shapes hiring decisions. In
Study 2b, we explore how making a passion attribution compares to suppressing an emotional
expression, and explore the impact of both suppression and reframing on decisions about whom
to work with on a collaborative task.
Study 2a: Hiring Decision about an Interviewee who Reframes Distress
In Study 2a, we asked individuals to read a transcript of an employment interview and
make a hiring decision based on their impressions. Further, we test whether perceptions of
competence mediate the relationship between emotional frame and hiring decisions.
Method
Participants. We recruited 400 (164 women, Mage=34.46) American respondents from
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk who participated in exchange for $0.75. We aimed to recruit 400
participants based on a pre-determined rule to exclude participants who did not spend sufficient
Reframing Emotion as Passion
22
time reading the interview transcript.6 After excluding participants who did not spend sufficient
time reading the transcript, our sample included 281 (126 female, Mage=36.56) participants. We
report the results including all participants in footnotes throughout the study.
Design and Procedure. We told participants that they would be asked to evaluate a job
candidate based on the written transcript of an in-person interview. First, participants read a job
description for a pharmacist position. Next, they read an excerpt of an interview for the position
with either a male (Samuel) or a female (Samantha) applicant. The interview consisted of three
questions and answers. The final interview question asked the interviewee to describe a time
when they went above and beyond what was expected of them. The interviewee answered this
question by describing an initiative s/he had set up to tutor students to pass their pharmacy
technician certification test, but explained that it “ended up not really working out” because the
hospital sponsoring the program cancelled it at the last minute. The interviewee then described
how s/he expressed distress and attributed the distress expression to passion or to emotionality:
I got really upset about it. When my boss told me about it I even ended up getting choked
up in front of him because I was so upset. I was just really passionate [emotional] about it
and I I become really passionate [emotional] about things when I invest that much time
in them.
After reading the materials, participants indicated whether or not they would hire the
applicant and wrote a brief statement explaining their decision. Participants then rated the
applicant’s perceived competence on the same scale used in Study 1a (D=.96).7
6 Our experimental manipulation was embedded in a transcript that consisted of 411 words. Therefore, we wanted to
ensure that participants read the study materials thoroughly. The average American adult can read between 250 and
300 words per minute, and almost all Americans read less than 400 words per minute (Carver, 1985). The passage
was 411 words long, so we excluded any participant who would have been reading at a rate greater than 400 words
per minute by spending less than 61.65 seconds on the page with the transcript. Note that we had anticipated that
many participants would be dropped from the analyses (based on a separate pilot test), and therefore recruited
enough participants to power our study despite anticipated exclusions. The effects were similar, though slightly
weaker, when we included all participants in the analyses. We report in footnotes throughout the study the analyses
including all participants.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
23
Results
Manipulation check. To check that participants saw the passionate candidate as more
passionate than the emotional candidate, and the emotional candidate as more emotional than the
passionate candidate, we conducted a repeated measures ANOVA on the items “Sam seems
passionate” and “Sam seems emotional” using emotion reframing condition as a between-
subjects factor. We found the expected interaction effect, F(1, 279)=31.85, p<.001, Kp2=.10. As
expected, participants in the passion condition (M=6.22, SD=1.00) rated the candidate as more
passionate than those in the emotionality condition (M=5.87, SD=1.29), p<.001, and participants
in the emotionality condition (M=6.48, SD=0.78) rated the candidate as more emotional than
participants in the passion condition (M=5.97, SD=1.12), p=.01.
Hiring decision. We conducted a chi-square test on hiring decisions across experimental
conditions. Consistent with our predictions, 61.5% of participants who judged the passionate
applicant, but only 47.4% of participants who judged the emotional applicant, chose to hire the
applicant, F2 (1, N=281) = 5.64, p=.02, see Figure 2.8
================
Insert Figure 2 about here
================
Perceived competence. To test Hypotheses 1 and 3, we conducted a 2 (Attribution:
passion, emotionality) x 2 (Candidate Gender: male, female) factorial ANOVA. Supporting
Hypothesis 1, participants in the passion condition perceived the candidate as more competent
(M=5.03, SD=1.17) than did participants in the emotionality condition (M=4.62, SD=1.30), F(1,
7 We also measured warmth and perceived appropriateness. We chose to exclude these analyses from the manuscript
for the sake of brevity, however, these results are available from the authors.
8 Hiring decision crossed with attribution using the full sample, F2 (1, N=400) = 4.87, p=.03.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
24
277)=7.28, p=.007, Kp2=.03.9 The main effect of candidate gender was also significant such that
the male candidate (M=4.99, SD=1.23) was rated as more competent than the female candidate
(M=4.69, SD=1.25), F(1, 277)=3.79, p=.05, Kp2=.01. Once again, however, Hypothesis 3 was not
supported: the interaction effect between gender and experimental condition was not significant,
p=.70.
Mediation analysis. We then evaluated whether or not perceptions of competence
mediated hiring decisions. We conducted a bootstrap analysis of the indirect effect using 20,000
repetitions. We found that the 95% confidence interval of the indirect effect did not contain the
value zero, indicating that perceived competence mediated the relationship between attribution
and the decision to hire the applicant (estimate = -1.36, bias-corrected 95% CI = [-2.57, -0.36]).
Discussion
In support of Hypotheses 1 and 2, the results of Study 2a replicate and extend the
findings of Studies 1a-c by demonstrating that attributing one’s distress expression to “passion”
versus “emotionality” influences important workplace outcomes: participants were more likely to
hire an applicant when the candidate attributed his or her own emotional display at work to
passion than to emotionality. Participants in the passionate condition perceived the candidate as
more competent than participants in the emotional condition, which in turn influenced their
decision of whether to hire the applicant.
We once again did not find support for Hypothesis 3: candidate gender did not moderate
the effect of reframing on perceptions of competence. However, participants did perceive men’s
and women’s competence differently. Unlike in the previous studies, participants in Study 2a
9 Competence using full sample, F(1,396)=6.71, p=.04, Kp2=.01.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
25
rated men who expressed low-intensity distress (i.e., getting choked up) as significantly more
competent than women who expressed low-intensity distress.
Study 2b: Partner Selection for a Collaborative Task
In Study 2b, we explore a different behavioral outcome: partner selection for a paid
collaborative task. This study extends our investigation in two important ways. First, in contrast
to Study 2a, in which we asked participants to make a hypothetical hiring decision, in Study 2b,
we ask participants to make a decision with real financial repercussions. Second, we compare
emotion reframing with a different emotion regulation strategy: suppression. People can suppress
their emotions when they feel a negative emotion but wish to conceal it from observers. We
compare a distress expression attributed to passion or no attribution to the absence of a distress
expression (i.e., suppression).
Method
Participants. Two hundred (84 women, Mage=33.09) American respondents from
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk participated in exchange for $0.60.
Design and Procedure. We used a within-subjects design with three experimental
conditions: Suppression, Passion Attribution, or No Attribution. In our recruiting materials, we
publicized that this study was the first phase of a two-phase study on collaboration (though in
reality participants only participated in a single phase of the study). Upon consenting to
participate, participants learned that they would select a partner from among three candidates,
and that they would collaborate with this partner on a joint task during the second phase of the
study. We gave them specific details about how they would connect with their partner using an
external chat platform to make the study more believable.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
26
To incentivize participants to choose the person they thought would be the best partner,
we told participants that they would have a chance to earn a bonus for their work with their
partner “based on [their] joint performance and the success of [their] collaboration.” We then
told them that we had asked 300 workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to write about times
they had experienced distress in a work context, and that they would be shown three examples of
these responses and asked to pick a partner from among the three descriptions.
Each participant read three descriptions: one in which the narrator felt distressed but hid
the distress from his/her coworkers (Suppression), one in which the narrator openly expressed
distress in front of colleagues and attributed the expression to passion (Passion Attribution), and
one in which the narrator openly expressed distress in front of colleagues but did not make an
attribution for the expression (No Attribution). Across all three descriptions, it was clear that the
other person had experienced distress, but expressed their feelings in different ways.
After reading the three descriptions, participants selected a collaboration partner for the
second phase of the study. This was our main dependent measure. They also answered three
questions about each applicant to assess perceived competence: How much respect do you have
for each of these participants?” “How competent do you think each of these participants is?” and
How much self-control do you think each of these participants has?” using 7-point scales
(D=.82). Participants also indicated their perceptions of each narrators’ distress (“How upset and
distressed do you think each of these participants was in the situation they described?”). To avoid
participants answering favorably about the partner they chose because they anticipated working
with him or her, after each question we told participants “Note: we will not show your response
to this question to your partner.”
Reframing Emotion as Passion
27
Stimuli. To create the stimuli, we used responses collected from a separate pilot test in
which we asked participants to describe an experience of distress at work. After pretesting a
selection of responses (in the No Attribution format), we found three narrators who were
evaluated as similarly competent (F[2,147]=1.07, p=.35), distressed (F[2,147]=0.77, p=.46), and
appealing as partners (within-subjects design: F2[2, N=48]=.88, p=.65; between-subjects design:
F[2,147]=0.20, p=.82) based on their responses. The gender of the narrator was not discernable
in any of the three responses. See Table 1 for the stimuli.
To avoid any effects of the specific response on participants’ choices, we used stimulus
sampling. That is, we varied which story was paired with each condition (Suppression, Passion
Attribution, No Attribution), so that every possible pairing of story and condition was
represented and randomly assigned. In the Suppression condition, the response ended with “but I
hid how I was feeling in front of my co-workers.” In the No Attribution condition, the response
ended with a description of how the narrator’s co-workers could tell how upset s/he was. In the
Passion Attribution condition, the response described how the narrator’s co-workers could tell
how upset s/he was and included the additional phrase, “I just felt so passionate about it.”
===============
Insert Table 1 about here
===============
Results
Partner Selection. A chi-square test for goodness of fit showed that partner selection
was not equally distributed across condition, F2 (2, N=200) = 8.23, p=.02. Whereas 25.5% of
participants chose the narrator in the No Attribution condition, 32.5% chose the narrator in the
Passion Attribution condition, and 42.0% chose the narrator in the Suppression condition.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
28
Inconsistent with our pretests, we also found that response version mattered: more
participants chose Response 2 (41.5%) than Response 1 (27.5%) or Response 3 (31.0%), F2(2,
N=200)=6.37, p=.04. However, because of the stimulus sampling, the response version did not
vary consistently with condition. Therefore, the effect of response version on partner selection
should make it less likely, not more likely, that we would find an effect of condition on partner
selection. To ensure that there was no association between the specific response and our
experimental conditions, we conducted a chi-square test of independence, which, as expected,
was not significant, F2(4, N=200)=2.49, p=.65.
Perceived competence. To test the relationship between condition and competence, we
conducted a repeated-measure ANOVA on the perceived competence of each narrator,
depending on attribution condition.10 As predicted, we found that participants rated the narrators
differently depending on attribution condition, F(1.72, 342.45)=72.42, p<.001, Kp2=.27. Post-hoc
tests using a Bonferroni adjustment demonstrated that participants rated narrators in the
Suppression condition (M=5.90, SD=0.93) as more competent than those in the Passion
Attribution condition (M=5.21, SD=1.10), p<.001, or those in the No Attribution condition
(M=5.04, SD=1.15), p<.001. As expected, participants also believed narrators who attributed
their expression to passion were more competent than on those who did not make an attribution,
p=.01.
Perceived distress. There was a main effect of attribution condition on participants’
ratings of distress, F(1.92, 382.02)=18.50, p<.001, ηρ² = .09. Participants rated the narrator who
suppressed (M=5.72, SD=1.14) as less distressed than the narrator who attributed the distress
expression to passion (M=6.14, SD=0.97), p<.001, or made no attribution (M=6.07, SD=1.13),
10 Mauchly’s test indicated that the assumption of sphericity was violated. We therefore report the Greenhouse-
Geisser estimates and use Bonferroni adjustments for post-hoc tests to correct for the violation, see Field (2009).
Reframing Emotion as Passion
29
p<.001, but did not rate the narrator who attributed to passion differently than the narrator who
made no attribution, p=.82.
Discussion
Participants were more likely to choose partners for a future collaboration when the
partners suppressed their distress compared to when they expressed distress and attributed the
distress to passion. However, supporting Hypothesis 2, participants were more likely to select a
partner who expressed distress and attributed it to passion than a partner who expressed distress
and did not make an attribution. Supporting Hypothesis 1, participants also perceived potential
partners who attributed distress to passion as more competent than those who did not make an
attribution.
Participants also believed that the potential partner who suppressed distress was less
distressed than either of the employees who expressed distress (whether or not they made a
passion attribution). However, as in Study 1b, participants did not differ in how distressed they
perceived the narrator who expressed distress and reframed it as passion, and the narrator who
expressed distress and did not make an attribution. This again suggests that participants who
label their distress as passion can communicate a similar level of distress as those who do not,
but without as many social costs.
Taken together, these results suggest that when attempting to convey a competent
impression, suppressing the expression is likely to lead to better impressions than expressing
distress and making a passion attribution. However, if suppression is not possible, if distress has
already been expressed, or if it is important to communicate distress to others, making a passion
attribution is superior to making no attribution.
General Discussion
Reframing Emotion as Passion
30
In his foundational paper The Laws of Emotion, Nico Frijda posited the Law of Concern:
“Emotions arise in response to events that are important to the individual’s goals, motives, or
concerns” (1988; p. 351). In other words, individuals feel emotional about things that they feel
passionate about. However, in the workplace, particularly workplaces with restrictive display
rules, negative emotion is perceived to be an inappropriate distraction, whereas passion is
perceived to be critical to individuals’ success. In five experiments, we demonstrated that
individuals may simply change the narrative they use to describe their distress expressions to
fundamentally shift the perceptions and decisions of those around them.
Across five studies, we found support for Hypothesis 1 that reframing expressions of
distress as passion can mitigate observers negative perceptions of competence following an
expression of distress. These findings were consistent across judgments of strangers (Studies 1a-
b and 2a), current colleagues (Study 1c), and future collaborators (Study 2b). Further, supporting
Hypothesis 2, participants were more likely to decide to hire and collaborate with people who
attributed past emotional displays to passion compared to those who expressed distress and
attributed it to emotionality or made no attribution (Studies 2a-b). Reframing a distress
expression as caused by passion (rather than emotionality), by simply saying “I am passionate,”
was effective in mitigating negative perceptions of competence. Our findings suggest that
reframing a distress expression as passionate represents an important and easily-deployed
intervention that is likely to have profound effects on work outcomes.
Contrary to Hypothesis 3, reframing expressions of distress as passionate was similarly
effective for both men and women across all five experiments. Although we did not find that
gender moderated the effect of reframing on perceptions of competence, expresser gender did
influence ratings of competence. However, these effects were not consistent across studies. In
Reframing Emotion as Passion
31
Studies 1a and 1b, we found evidence that female expressers were judged more positively than
male expressers. In Study 2a, we found that male expressers were judged more positively than
female expressers. Perhaps this is because the expresser in Study 1a cried (high-intensity distress
expression), whereas the expresser in Study 2a simply “got choked up” (low-intensity distress
expression). Display rules about expressions of negative emotion are stricter for men than for
women, and men cry less often than women do on average (Fischer et al., 2013; Vingerhoets,
Cornelius, Van Heck, & Becht, 2000), so perhaps men are penalized more than women when
they express high-intensity distress, but women are penalized more than men when they express
low-intensity distress. Future research could further explore the consequences of distress
expressions of varying intensities for men versus women at work.
Study 2b showed that individuals who hid their emotions were perceived as even more
competent and desirable as partners than individuals who reframed their emotion as passion.
However, prior research has documented substantial costs of suppressing distress. Trying to hide
negative feelings from others does not help individuals reduce the experience of these feelings,
and can paradoxically increase sympathetic activation and the risk of health problems (e.g.,
Berry & Pennebaker, 1993; Gross & Levenson, 1993). At work, people who regularly suppress
their distress experience dissatisfaction and burnout at higher rates than those who do not
(Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993; Wharton, 1993). Beyond these negative intra-personal costs,
suppression also leads suppressors to feel less satisfied with social interactions and observers and
expressers to be less likely to form friendships (Butler et al., 2003). In the long-term, chronic
suppressors have been found to have poor social functioning in general (Gross & John, 2003;
Srivastava et al., 2009).
Reframing Emotion as Passion
32
In addition, expressing distress can be beneficial. For example, expressing distress at
work allows individuals to communicate displeasure with current circumstances and a need for
assistance from colleagues (e.g., Geddes & Callister, 2007; Van Kleef, De Dreu & Manstead,
2010). Emotion reframing allows individuals to communicate the intensity of their distress, but
can mitigate some of the social costs associated with expressing distress at work.
Theoretical Contributions
Our work advances the literature on emotion regulation by suggesting that the benefits of
cognitive reappraisala much-studied intrapersonal emotion regulation tacticmay extend to
interpersonal encounters. Although previous research has examined how regulating emotional
experiences internally before an expression shapes interpersonal interactions and impressions
(e.g. Chi, Grandey, Diamond, & Krimmel, 2011; Grandey, 2003; Gross & John, 2003), we
demonstrate that reframing emotional expressions publicly after an expression can shape
interpersonal interactions and impressions.
Our research also contributes to the literature on impression management, the process by
which individuals attempt to control how other people perceive them (Leary & Kowalski, 1990).
We show that a verbal justification can be used to mitigate the negative consequences of
expressing distress at work. Individuals may use assertive impression management tactics to
promote favorable impressions, whereas they may use defensive tactics to repair others’ view
of them following a negative impression (e.g., Ellis, West, Ryan, & DeShon, 2002). Defensive
tactics can involve strategies such as excuses (e.g., “I was sick at home that day so it wasn’t my
fault”), justifications (e.g., “but that is only because…”), or apologies (e.g., “I’m sorry, it will
never happen again”; Ellis et al., 2002). In our research, we demonstrate how a defensive verbal
statement (“I am passionate”) influences impressions after a negative emotional expression.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
33
Limitations and Future Directions
Our work is qualified by several limitations that offer avenues for future research. First,
our studies were cross-sectional and did not allow us to examine the influence of reframing on
long-term outcomes. Future research could employ a longitudinal study to assess how an
individual’s emotion framing influences their long-term outcomes such as job performance,
salary, promotion, and turnover. This work could also examine how workplace display rules may
shift over time as a result of repeated reframing: if individuals frequently label their emotional
expressions as passion, it may cause negative emotional expression to seem more appropriate.
Second, we only investigated one form of emotion reframing. We compared how
attributing distress to an ambiguous positive source (passion), differs from attributing distress to
an ambiguous neutral (or perhaps somewhat negative) source (emotionality) or not making an
attribution at all. However, we believe that individuals may also be able to reframe their
expressions by attributing them to a different discrete emotion than they are actually
experiencing. For example, if a presenter is shaking and flushed because she is experiencing
anxiety before an important client meeting, she could publicly attribute her expression to either
feeling passionate about doing well in the meeting (as we test here), or to feeling excited.
Reframing an emotion in this way would, in essence, be a verbal form of nonverbal masking
(i.e., substituting an appropriate emotional expression for an inappropriate one, such as smiling
to conceal distress; Ekman & Friesen, 1982). However, publicly reframing distress as a positive
emotion (e.g., reframing anxiety as excitement) while privately experiencing distress may seem
dishonest to expressers who wish to communicate their true emotional states at work. A passion
attribution, in addition to being effective, is also honest.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
34
Finally, future research could explore additional contextual factors that may moderate the
effects we report here. For example, display rules and norms about emotion regulation differ
across cultures (e.g., Matsumoto, Yoo, & Nakagawa, 2008). Future research could explore how
suppression and reframing influence co-workers’ perceptions across cultures. Similarly, the
status of the target who displayed emotion may have an important effect. Emotional displays are
often perceived differently depending on the status of the person displaying the emotion. For
example a similar expression of distress may be perceived as sadness when the target is low-
status, but anger when a target is high-status (Tiedens, 2000). Future research could explore how
an individual’s status or power (relative to the observer’s) might influence perceptions of
reframed emotional expressions.
Conclusion
People often feel the need to express emotions that violate workplace display rules.
Because suppressing emotions is often difficult, can be psychologically costly, and prevents the
expression of authentic emotional information to co-workers, employees may not suppress their
distress at work. In this paper, we propose a novel strategy that people can use if they do express
emotions that violate workplace display rules: emotion reframing. By publicly attributing
socially inappropriate emotional displays (e.g., distress) to a socially appropriate source (e.g.,
passion), employees can easily and profoundly improve their interpersonal outcomes at work.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
35
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Reframing Emotion as Passion
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Table 1.
Responses used as stimuli in Study 2b.
Response 2:
Response 3:
I was up for a promotion
and had been promised
that I would get one as I
had the highest evaluation
score of anyon
e in my
dept. Later I found out that
someone else got it
because of their personal
connections. I was very
disappointed. It was really
obvious to everyone that I
was very upset about it.
I had worked really hard
on a big project for a few
months. After the
project
was finished I was told
that it was going to be
scrapped and never used.
I was devastated. My
coworkers all saw that I
was really upset and kept
asking me what was
wrong because of how
devastated I looked.
Note.
These are the No Attribution versions of each response. In the Suppression condition, the
response replaced the last sentence with “but I hid how I was feeling in front of my co
-
workers.”
In the Passion Attribution condition, the phrase, “I just felt so passionate about it,” was added to
the end of this version of the responses. Participants saw three responses, one in the No
Attribution condition, one in the Passion Attribution condition, and one in the Suppression
condition.
Reframing Emotion as Passion
45
Figure 1. Participants’ ratings of their co-workers’ competence in Study 1c. Mean ratings
reported by experimental condition (Passion attribution v. Emotionality attribution), and divided
across differing levels of organizational display rules: permissive (one standard deviation below
the mean; M=2.28), moderate (at the mean; M=3.76), and restrictive (one standard deviation
above the mean; M=5.24).
4.95
5.07
5.2
4.84
4.71
4.57
4
4.2
4.4
4.6
4.8
5
5.2
5.4
5.6
5.8
6
Permissive
Moderate
Restrictive
Participants ratings of their coworkers'
competence
Participants' Workplace Display Rules
Passionate
Emotional
Reframing Emotion as Passion
46
Figure 2. Percentage of participants who indicated that they would hire an interviewee after s/he
reframed a distress expression as passion or emotionality, with 95% confidence intervals (Study
2a).
61.5%
47.4%
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
90%
100%
Passionate
Emotional
Percentage of participants who chose to hire the
interviewee
Emotion Reframing Condition
... Linguistic framing research provides examples of how in messages, minor changes in wording can influence people's judgement, decisions and behaviors (e.g. Mayer & Tormala, 2010;Wolf et al., 2016;You et al., 2020). ...
... In keeping with this approach, data about women's reactions were interpreted as resilient and strategic resource conservation. By reframing what are often experienced as negative emotions, individuals can mitigate their distress and frustration within a work environment (Wolf et al., 2016). Attributes like pas sion, wanting to change the statusquo, and being socially conscious are all desirable, but are often accompanied by negative emotions. ...
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