Bounded emotionality

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Bounded emotionality is a concept within communication theory that stems from emotional labor and bounded rationality. It was proposed by Dennis K. Mumby and Linda L. Putnam[1] and defines an alternative form of organizing that encourages the expression of a greater spectrum of emotions in organizational communication. Mumby and Putnam (1992) stress that bounded emotionality encourages emotions of nurturance, care, community, supportiveness, and interrelatedness fused with individual responsibility to shape organizational experiences. Emotions are encouraged to be expressed but must fall within variable boundaries, which differs from traditional and normative organizations.[2]


Prior to Mumby and Putnam’s specific articulation of bounded emotionality research on the role of emotion had focused more on its relationship with work performance and attitudes towards work. Two concepts, bounded rationality and emotional labor were used to describe conventional organization theory as “involving boundary maintenance that includes stripping away or attempting to control those aspects of personal identity and external commitments that would interfere with rational decision making” (p. 246).[3] Bounded rationality is typically defined as intentional, reasoned, goal directed behavior where “human decision-making, whether individual or organizational, is concerned with the discovery and selection of satisfactory alternatives.” (p. 141)[4] Organizational actors generate options prospectively and select the best or optimal alternative for reaching a particular goal.[1] Simon introduced this concept and cast it as “bounded” because he depicted holistic forms of reasoning such as intuition and judgment as non-rational and decisions based on emotions as irrational.[5] Emotions are devalued, trivialized, or treated as inappropriate at work, because emotional experience is seen as weak and a handicap to organizational decision-making. Emotional labor refers to the way individuals change or manage emotions to make them appropriate with a situation, a role, or an expected organizational behavior.[3][6]

Mumby and Putnam introduced the concept of bounded emotionality as an alternative organizational concept to bounded rationality and emotional labor, in order to demonstrate the instability of meanings and claim the importance of emotions in organizational decision-making.[1] “Within a system governed by bounded rationality and emotional labor, hierarchical goals and values function in a linear and fixed way to provide a constant set of organizational outcomes that are not easy to change. When organizing is framed in terms of bounded emotionality, heterarchial goals and values are flexible and they alternate unpredictability in a coordinated arrangement."[1] Bounded rationality and emotional labor isolate the emotional or physical self from the process of organizing. However, Mumby and Putnam argue that emotions are voluntarily bounded in organizations for the protection of interpersonal relationships and for the encouragement of mutual understanding instead of surfacing as a commodity.[1] Bounded Emotionality is not intended to function as the exact opposite of bounded rationality or emotional labor, but was introduced to establish a new way of perceiving emotional expression within organizations.[7]

Seven defining characteristics[edit]

In order to create a distinction of what exactly bounded emotionality entails, Mumby and Putnam established seven defining characteristics.[1] These include:

  • Intersubjective limitations: In organizations, individuals must recognize another person’s subjectivity. That is, be aware that people have different levels of comfort when it comes to emotional expression, some may be very expressive, whereas others may be more reserved. Individuals must be able to tailor their communication based on emotional limitations and preferences both individuals bring to the relationship.
  • Spontaneously emergent work feelings: Work feelings should appear naturally through everyday tasks; they should not be assigned. Feelings can and should emerge in a way that is not controlled by the organization’s management or appointed for the organization’s benefit.
  • Tolerance of ambiguity: Unlike bounded rationality, which requires the same specified emotions to be utilized in interactions with every person in every context, bounded emotionality includes room for contradictory feelings, positions and demands to coexist.
  • Heterarchy of goals and values: There is not one universal set of values; instead each individual holds his/her own perspective on values. These unique sets of values held by individuals should be considered and respected in all interactions.
  • Integrated self-identity and authenticity: Individuals should be allowed and encouraged to express themselves genuinely in their organizations, without feeling a need to falsely state emotions due to work pressures.
  • Community: Bounded emotionality is used in organizations to promote strong feelings of community between all members of the organization. Emotions are used to create a tighter-knit group that understands each other.
  • Relational feeling rules: Feeling rules are used to help individuals recognize the other person’s subjectivity and to encourage receptiveness in relationships. These rules are guidelines of meanings for different experiences instead of guidelines for organizational norms.

A comparison of bounded rationality and bounded emotionality[edit]

The table below presents a comparison of bounded rationality and bounded emotionality.[1]

Bounded Rationality Bounded Emotionality
Organizational limitations Intersubjective limitations
Reduction of ambiguity through satisficing Tolerance of ambiguity
Hierarchy-means-end chain Heterarchy of goals and values
Mind-body dualism Integrated self-identity
Fragmented labor Community
Gendered and occupational feeling rules Relational feeling rules


The content in this section is not an exhaustive examination of bounded emotionality but rather an examination of scholarly texts that display the concept in real world situations and applications. Bounded emotionality in the workplace is further discussed and explored for clarification and illumination of the concept.

Shockley-Zalabak and Keyton's (2010) hypothetical case demonstrates bounded emotionality.[8] A mother and daughter undergo emotional distress when they are faced with a mandate to attend an organizational team building activity. Lena and Kalee, mother and daughter at We-R-Radio, masked their true emotions from their boss about their company retreat because they did not want to jeopardize their jobs or undermine his authority. Other employees at We-R-Radio felt similarly to Lena and Kalee but did not express their feelings to the boss. As Kalee and Lena increased their efforts to hide their emotions the more tension and stress was generated.

As noted in the Origin section, bounded emotionality or emotional labor can also be forced upon members of an organization. Member emotions may be controlled by tasks, roles, and interactions imposed by the organization and its structure (Mumby & Putnam, 1992).[1] An illustration of a flight attendant who has been transformed by organizational rules is described as such:

“The flight attendant’s smile is like her makeup, it is on her, not of her. The rules about how to feel and how to express feelings are set by management, with the goal of producing passenger contentment. Company manuals give detailed instructions on how to provide a “sincere” and “unaffected” facial expression, how to seem “vivacious but not effervescent” (p. 472).[1]

The flight attendant’s behavior exemplifies spontaneously emergent work feelings, which is the second defining characteristic of bounded emotionality [see Seven Defining Characteristics]. This characteristic holds that an employee’s emotions should not be dictated by the administration of an organization nor should it be “appointed for the organization’s benefit;” nevertheless, in this example organizational rules mandate that the flight attendant adheres to this standardized set of emotions.

Some researchers have also related the concept of bounded emotionality to leadership within an organization. For instance Ashkanasy and Jordan (2008) argue that leaders have a responsibility to their organization, to develop positive relationships between those involved in the organization.[9] To do this they insist that leaders must practice bounded emotionality and appropriately use emotion to establish an emotionally healthy climate and culture. Ashkanasy and Jordan (2008) argue that bounded emotionality can contribute to a better understanding of how emotions contribute to leadership and that within this framework leaders are encouraged to maintain sensitive but flexible boundaries between what is felt and what is expressed.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mumby, D. & Putnam, L. (1992). "The politics of emotion: A feminist reading of bounded rationality". Academy of Management Review. 17: 465–486. doi:10.5465/amr.1992.4281983. 
  2. ^ Martin, J.; Knopoff, K.; & Beckman, C (1998). "An alternative to bureaucratic impersonality and emotional labor: Bounded emotionality at The Body Shop". Administrative Science Quarterly. 43 (2): 429–469. doi:10.2307/2393858. 
  3. ^ a b Jayasinghe, K.; Thomas, D.; Wickramasinghe, D (2008). "Bounded emotionality in entrepreneurship: An alternative framework". International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour & Research. 14 (4): 242–258. doi:10.1108/13552550810887408. 
  4. ^ March, J. G.; Simon, H.A (1959). Organizations. USA: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 
  5. ^ Simon, H. (1976). Administrative behavior (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press. 
  6. ^ Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 
  7. ^ Hartel, C. E.; Zerbe, W. J.; Ahkanasy, N. M. (2005). Emotions in organizational behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 
  8. ^ Shockley-Zalabak, P. & Keyton, J. (2010). Case studies for organizational communication: Understanding communication processes. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  9. ^ Ashkanasy, N. M. (2003). "Emotions in organizations: A multi-level perspective". Multi-Level Issues in Organizational Behavior and Strategy Research in Multilevel Issues. 2: 9–54. doi:10.1016/s1475-9144(03)02002-2.