How to Manage Your Mood and Language to Resolve Workplace Disputes

by | Jul 12, 2015

“I can’t work with him! The project was late because he didn’t do his part. I have to hold his hand every step of the way.” That’s what she said as she stood in my office frustrated, agitated and angry. And, she expected me to “take care of it.”

The situation is similar to other workplace squabbles and disputes where management intervention is needed to move forward. As a manager, you need to know that language choice, and mood influence your interpretation, understanding and judgment of the problem. It takes a perceptive, self-aware manager to recognize and account for their mood and the impact of subtle language choices.

Of course, no one likes to think too much about becoming entangled in workplace disputes. However, it is important to understand your legal rights if ever a transactional or litigation matter escalates. Consequently, if you would like to learn more about resolving commercial disputes from a legal standpoint, then reaching out to a commercial litigation lawyer for legal support and advice is in your best interest. As with any legal matter, some things are best left to the professionals, and commercial disputes are no exception to this.

For now, though, let me share four factors to keep in mind if you are faced with resolving workplace disputes.

1. Describe the situation without assigning blame. “He is the reason the project was late” is an example of agentive language. Agentive language makes a person the subject of the action (the late project). “The project was late” is non-agentive language. Research shows that the use of agentive language has a noticeable effect on assignment of blame and judgment. Studies that assigned financial liability found that agentive language descriptions resulted in 30 to 50% higher judgments. In our example, the upset worker stated her grievance by assigning blame to the other person. Without conscious awareness of agentive language, you are more likely to agree with that judgment. Instead, reframe the problem, as “the project was late” then evaluate all reasons that contributed. It will result in a more objective evaluation.

2. Know your mood and its impacts. Your mood creates context through which you hear and process information. If you are in a good mood, positive information (congruent with that mood) is easier for the brain to integrate and understand. Conversely, negative information is much harder to process if you are in a good mood. Similarly, if you are in a bad mood, it is easier for your brain to process negative information. Be aware of your mood when listening to an agitated employee. While negative words are harder to process in general, you are more likely to process them if you got up on the wrong side of the bed or your computer just crashed. The bottom line is your mood can bias your interpretation of the situation. Consider your mood as you weigh the “he-said-she-saids” of the situation and try taking a Mood Supplement on the morning of a stressful day.

3. Recognize language that goes against your values. Comprehension is slower for words and descriptions that espouse a value judgment that is different from your personal beliefs. For example, my brain hesitated when this employee said, “I have to hold his hand every step of the way.” Personally, I value “self-sufficiency” so the idea of “holding his hand” flies in the face of my principles. I missed the next few sentences of the conversation as my brain tried to reconcile this information. You need to know your values so that you quickly recognize language that gets in the way of understanding and objectivity. Ask for clarifying language, or for the problem to be described in different words. This will aid you in separating your value system bias from the actual situation.

4. Look for solutions when your mood is positive. Neuroscientific research shows that a happy mood facilitates semantic processing and increases cognitive flexibility, which leads to creative outcomes. A sad mood, on the contrary, promotes a narrow focus on external stimuli and analytic processing. You need to find a wise, fair and objective resolution to employee disputes that maintains morale and productivity. This kind of wisdom benefits from creativity, and creativity benefits from a good mood. Don’t try to resolve the dispute on the day the dog chewed up your new shoes or your child broke a window with a baseball. Wait for the day when your kid gave you a big hug on the way out the door. With a smile on your face, look for creative options to resolve the problem.

Enhance your ability to handle employee disputes by recognizing the power language, and mood have to influence your perceptions and processing. Neutralize the impact through self-awareness and find a creative, and objective solution.

Fausey, Caitlin and Boroditsky, Lera. Subtle Linguistic Cues Influence Perceived Blame and Financial Liability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2010, 17(5).
Egidi, Giovanna and Nusbaum, Howard. Emotional Language Processing: How Mood Affects Integration Processes During Discourse Comprehension. Brain & Language, Elsevier. 2011.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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