Emotional Tyranny is a phrase first used by Dr. Vincent Waldron, professor of Communication Studies at Arizona State University, to describe the use of emotion by powerful organizational members in a manner that is perceived to be destructive, controlling, unjust, and even cruel.
Waldron first mentioned emotional tyranny in Stephen Fineman's 2000 book, Emotions in Organizations. In his chapter, Waldron argues that emotions people experience in the workplace are relational. That is, organizational relationships are unique to others, and the work place provides an interesting context in which we can experience emotions. Further, relationships in organizations are created, maintained, and changed with and through emotions. Waldron conducted interviews with and observations of probation officers, staff at a bank, service workers, state employees, those living with AIDS, human service organizations serving unemployed persons, and his own experiences at the university. He found that "it is the nature of work relationships, not the nature of the task itself, that creates the highest potential for intense emotional experience, including emotional abuse."
Emotional relationships as sites for emotional abuse for four reasons
- Power differences abound in workplace relationships. That is, “Certain relationships are tinged with fear because interactions (with leaders) can be risky and success or failure is linked with economic risk and career consequences”.
- Workplace encounters are public and are often witnessed by others in the organization, including peers and customers. Specifically, second-order emotional reactions are abound in workplace; the reaction to an emotional interaction that often becomes workplace "buzz." For instance when an employee's idea is dismissed and even ridiculed by a supervisor in front of their peers, the "news" of this event then "ripples across relational connections that are activated and reactivated through the buzz of daily interaction, similar to how we conceive of "talk at the water cooler" or "office gossip."
- Emotion is enmeshed in work roles. That is, part of our jobs and managing the relationships at work involves emotion. We often considered the “hot” or dramatic displays of emotions, but we need to also consider the more subtle performances typical of work relationships.
- Emotion fails to be bounded by the workplace. We bring emotions to work from home and take those home from work. Sometimes, emotions repressed at work come out in other places. As Waldron states, “Emotional tyranny in the workplace indirectly controls our private conversations and personal relationships”.
What emotional tyranny looks like
Nonverbally, emotional tyranny is practiced through the intensity, duration, and intermittence of emotional displays. For example, "an emotionally-abusive boss may express emotions at great volume, for unusually long periods of time, in unpredictable bursts and ever-changing hues."
Emotional language is used to suggest perceived shortcomings in the moral character of workers or to “motivate desired behavioral responses." Benign or otherwise positive language in other contexts are now used to harm. In his research, Waldron found workers have been described as “too eager and excited,” “shameless,” “emotionally undercarbonated”, “grumpy,” “wimpy,” “fearless,” “lacking personal pride,” “explosive,” and as having a “chip on her shoulder.”
Tactics. Powerful people design communication that elicits or changes emotional responses (false concern or faking, vanquishing emotions from work, emotional blackmail). Waldron give an example in which many tactics were employed:
"At my university, the implementation of a complicated new computer system was by all accounts badly bungled. One unfortunate result was that some (largely low-level) employees received reduced paychecks, or none at all, for several pay cycles. Employees expressed concern, then alarm, then frustration, then anger, and finally burning resentment as their plight went unacknowledged by leaders. After remaining mute about the problem for weeks (dismissing the emotional urgency expressed by employees and many of their supervisors), the President’s office finally responded by blaming the contractor and the human resources department (deflecting), claiming that the administration has been highly concerned all along (appropriation of employee emotion), and arguing that the administration had “no choice” but to implement the computer change because the old system was defunct and essentially in danger of self-destructing. This last tactic seemed designed to cultivate sympathy for the beleaguered administration. At the same time, administrative rhetoric implied that employees were selfish to complain about their personal losses in light of the organization’s eminent destruction at the hands of a decrepit computer. Not surprisingly, this shaming tactic was met by considerable indignation at what appeared to be emotional manipulation."
Processes and culture. The powerful manipulate procedures, structures, and behavior sequences to manipulate emotions. This may involve processes like sales rallies and training meanings in which workplace values are introduced, reinforced, and normalized. Concerning culture, it is the powerful who communicate the values, prescriptions, and understanding that give meaning to emotional experiences. Workplace culture is shaped when "leaders indicate the emotions they expect from members (e.g., enthusiasm for innovation), the emotional connections they condone or prohibit (e.g., rules on employee romance), and the emotional tenor pervading whole spheres of organizational life ('get serious about safety' or 'we work hard and play hard')."
Ultimately, Waldron argues that superiors (managers, bosses, supervisors)engage in emotional tyranny by controlling and manipulating the emotions of others. Powerful people can manipulate resources, relationships, whole organizations and even family and friends who are only indirectly related to the workplace. Emotional tyranny, like workplace bullying, has potentially devastating effects. "Fear, frustration, and rage, often appear in narratives about supervisory abuses of power. Hopeless despair or burning indignation may be the emotional reaction to repeated and persistent misuses of power." What's worse, Waldron argues that when emotional manipulation is the norm, relationships with powerful others become less authentic, more guarded, ethically compromised, and anxiety ridden. Waldron contends that powerful people should feel more responsibility to engage in responsible emotional behavior.
- Waldron, (2009)
- Waldron, (2000)
- Waldron, (2000), p. 66
- Waldron, (2009), p. 7
- Waldron, (2009), p. 9
- Waldron, (2009), p. 13
- Waldron, (2009), p. 14
- Waldron, (2009), p. 14-15
- Waldron, V. (2000). Relational Experiences and Emotion at Work. In S. Fineman (Ed.), Emotions in Organizations, (pp. 64–82). London: Sage Publications.
- Waldron, V. (2009 - In Press). Emotional tyranny at work: Suppressing the moral emotions. In P. Lutgen-Sandvik & B. Davenport Sypher (Eds.), The destructive side of organizational communication: Processes, consequences and constructive ways of organizing. Lawrence Erlbaum.