Maybe it goes without saying that the past two years have been stressful for employees. But new research suggests managers should say it anyway.

That’s because verbally acknowledging someone else’s feelings, especially negative ones, can help establish trust between people—and that trust can be crucial, especially for managers trying to lead widely dispersed teams during difficult times, says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Julian Zlatev.

Many managers believe in maintaining emotional boundaries with employees, but this may be a smart moment to let down their guard, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third exhausting year. Validating someone’s feelings can be as simple as pausing during the day to say, “You seem anxious,” says Zlatev, a professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at HBS.


Zlatev, who partnered with Justin Berg, an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and former Stanford doctoral student Alisa Yu on a series of studies, found that the trust that comes from verbally recognizing how employees feel, particularly when they are sad, upset, or angry, helps coworkers form a much deeper connection. The team’s paper, Emotional Acknowledgement: How Verbalizing Others’ Emotions Fosters Interpersonal Trust, was recently published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The benefits of talking it out

Zlatev and colleagues conducted six studies involving a total of about 2,500 participants between 2018 and 2020. The results indicated that:

Workers trust colleagues who acknowledge negative emotions: In the first study, they asked healthcare workers in a children’s hospital whether they trusted their coworkers and whether their colleagues had acknowledged their feelings in the previous two weeks. They posed questions like: “When my coworkers see that I am experiencing an emotion, they will mention it.” Participants were more likely to trust coworkers who had acknowledged their emotions, particularly when the emotions were negative, the findings showed.

Ignoring emotions lessens trust: In five subsequent studies, the researchers asked participants to either imagine themselves in a hypothetical scenario or to watch videos depicting workplace interactions. In both situations, emotions were either ignored or acknowledged. Participants consistently rated people who commented about negative emotions as more trustworthy, giving them ratings that were about 20 percent higher in one of the studies.

Acknowledging emotions comes with costs

Recognizing someone else’s emotions, especially negative ones, can come at a cost, the research team says. The person doing the acknowledging is willing to spend time talking through feelings of anger, sadness, or frustration without any immediate benefit for themselves, which is known in the field as “costly signaling.”

And in some cases, they are doing so even when talking about negative feelings goes against workplace norms.

“You're showing that you're willing to risk social sanctions in order to try to help someone who is maybe going through a difficult time,” says Zlatev.

Management lessons for empathic leaders

Since the research team studied workplace interactions between co-workers, more research is needed to evaluate how emotional acknowledgment works in hierarchical interactions like those between managers and subordinates, Zlatev says. Still, he says, managers should keep in mind that they may bond more with employees if they clarify that it’s acceptable for workers to express themselves, even when they feel frustrated or discontent.

After all, verbalizing those emotions is often discouraged at companies where employees are expected to excel in an atmosphere of unbounded optimism, notes Zlatev. Yu adds that the constant risk-benefit analysis that comes with living through a pandemic has exacerbated employee uneasiness.


“A lot of people are feeling apprehension,” says Yu, who’s now a scientist at Humu, a Palo Alto company that develops productivity tools for workplaces. “Maybe they want to go back to work but there's a lot of social anxiety because they're used to working at home. And maybe they think, ‘well, if I don't go into work, will I somehow miss a promotion or really important information at work.’ I think leaders would really benefit from acknowledging those emotions directly.”

Zlatev suggests that managers encourage a sense of openness by explicitly stating during a meeting: “This is a team where we want to help each other when we’re going through a difficult situation.”

A more subtle way managers can change norms in the group is by encouraging and supporting emotional acknowledgment whenever they see it in action. When acknowledgement becomes part of a workplace’s culture, Zlatev says, it’s more likely to be seen “coming from a genuine place because this is something that is now done in this work environment versus if a manager sort of does this out of nowhere.”

Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away

Of course, a manager inquiring about an employee’s feelings does carry risks. Some workers may feel it is intrusive. Or they may feel a manager is asking how they’re feeling, but isn’t sticking around to hear the answer.

“Managers are not going to gain the benefits if they’re not willing to then put in the effort to really understand why their employees are feeling that way and maybe even try to help,” says Zlatev.

For that reason, managers should broach acknowledgments at the right time and place. But even if a manager fumbles the timing or tone, the benefits of trying to connect with employees likely outweighs the risks, the studies suggest. While trust may not increase if the manager gets the negative emotion wrong, talking about it is still better than ignoring the emotion completely.

The team points to research showing an expectations gap between managers and employees. While managers view emotional support as committing an act of kindness outside their managerial role, employees, on the other hand, see it as an integral part of a manager’s job. Preliminary data in a separate study the team conducted also suggests that emotional acknowledgment boosts feelings of belonging and inclusivity.

“Not acknowledging negative emotions can be detrimental for building trust,” Yu says, “because if there is an expectation, especially that the leader is supposed to take care of their employees, and this is such a difficult time, staying silent can be harmful.”

This article originally appeared in Working Knowledge.