Traditional methods of distinguishing between employees’ emotionality in-clude (a) the phenomenological approach that attempts to show, for example, how the internal experience of dejection differs from that of agitation (e.g., Fineman, 1993); and (b) the consequences approach, which examines whether different types and degrees of emotional experience give rise to varying work attitudes or behaviors (e.g., Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996). Regulatory focus the-ory provides yet another way to differentiate employees’ emotional experiences:
on the basis of their antecedent conditions (Salovey & Rodin, 1984). For exam-ple, both dejection and agitation are unpleasant emotions. Moreover, both occur in response to negative feedback. What differs is the engendering condition, i.e., being promotion focused in the case of dejection and prevention focused in the case of agitation.
Previous research on regulatory focus theory provides substantial evidence supporting the central tenet underlying the present analysis; namely that whether people are promotion focused or prevention focused influences the nature and magnitude of their emotional experience. We have attempted to demonstrate that people’s regulatory focus, as well as the relationship between their regulatory focus and emotionality, have important implications for their work attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction) and behaviors (e.g., motivation). Neverthe-less, much needs to be learned about the effects of employees’ regulatory focus on their emotions, attitudes, and behaviors.
A major purpose of this article is to encourage thought and dialogue among organizational psychologists about the implications of regulatory focus theory for their lines of inquiry. Given the wide range and types of dependent variables affected by people’s regulatory focus—emotions, to be sure, but also satisfaction, motivation, and decision making (Higgins, 1998)—the potential relevance of regulatory focus theory to organizational psychology is considerable.
Further research on the organizational implications of regulatory focus the-ory should take at least two different forms. First, the generalizability of regula-tory focus theory to organizational settings needs to be evaluated. The vast majority of prior research has consisted of laboratory experiments in which
college students took part in abstract tasks. Whether similar results would emerge in organizational settings in which employees are assessed in the context of their typical work assignments is an empirical question. Second, how organizational variables and regulatory focus processes relate to each other needs to be considered further.
Toward Greater Generalizability
A recent study by Kluger, Van-Dijk, Kass, Stein, and Lustig (1999) moves regulatory focus theory in the direction of greater face relevance to organiza-tional settings. The purpose of the study was to account for previously contradic-tory effects of feedback on employees’ subsequent motivation. More specifically, some studies have shown negative feedback to be more motivating than positive feedback, others find the reverse, and still others find no overall difference in the motivational consequences of negative versus positive feedback (Kluger &
DeNisi, 1996). Kluger et al. hypothesized that whether negative or positive feedback would be more motivating depends on people’s regulatory focus.
Participants consisted of employees drawn from a wide variety of organiza-tions who took part in a scenario study in which they indicated the degree to which their motivation would be altered by feedback from their supervisor.
Half were induced to have a prevention focus; they were asked to imagine that they had to keep their jobs or face the prospect of being left without income.
The other half were induced to have a promotion focus; they were asked to imagine that their job was one which they always wanted to have and that they wanted to develop and advance in that job. Feedback valence was manipu-lated by having half of the participants imagine that their supervisor had given them negative feedback, whereas the remaining half imagined that their supervisor had given them positive feedback. The results revealed no overall effect of feedback valence on motivation, but rather an interaction between participants’ regulatory focus and feedback valence. Promotion-focused individ-uals who received positive feedback and prevention-focused persons who re-ceived negative feedback reported that they would have become much more motivated than those in the remaining conditions. Kluger et al. (1999) did not include emotion as a dependent variable; however, it is entirely likely that promotion-focused persons who succeeded felt cheerful while the prevention-focused persons who failed felt agitated.
Although the Kluger et al. (1999) study is a useful start in showing the generalizability of regulatory focus theory to organizations, it is merely a sce-nario study. Even better would be to examine the effect of regulatory focus on employees’ emotions, attitudes, and behaviors in actual organizational settings.
As future research on the consequences of people’s regulatory focus moves into organizations, it is also quite important to delineate the relationship between employees’ emotions and their work attitudes and behaviors. Is it the case that employees’ regulatory focus simultaneously influences emotions and other attitudes and behaviors? Do their behaviors influence their emotions? Or do
employees’ emotional reactions mediate the relationship between their regula-tory focus and their work attitudes and behaviors?
Toward a Reciprocal Relationship between Regulatory Focus Theory and Organizational Psychology
In addition to evaluating the generalizability of regulatory focus theory to the organizational arena, future research needs to investigate how organization-related factors influence regulatory focus processes (e.g., see the preceding section on the organizational determinants of employees’ regulatory focus).
Another example stems from the fact that interactions between people in the workplace frequently take place over time. Often, there is a history to these interactions. Furthermore, there is the anticipation of future interaction. What effect do the historical or anticipated future aspects of organizational life (miss-ing from most laboratory sett(miss-ings) have on the relationship between people’s regulatory focus and their experience of emotion?
For example, in actual organizations people receive feedback on an ongoing basis, not simply at one point in time. What would happen, we wonder, if prevention-focused persons continued to receive negative feedback over time?
At first they may feel agitated and try harder for a while, but if those renewed efforts still meet with failure they ultimately may give up (Wortman & Brehm, 1975). Moreover, upon giving up they are likely to feel dejected (the negative emotion typically associated with being promotion focused) rather than agi-tated. In other words, the temporal dynamics present in organizational settings (but not in laboratory experiments) may help to explain shifts in people’s regulatory foci.
More generally, as future researchers examine how aspects of organizational life influence regulatory focus processes, they may illustrate the reciprocal relationship between regulatory focus theory and organizational psychology.
Just as regulatory focus theory has much to say about employees’ emotions, work attitudes, and behaviors, so may the study of the antecedents and conse-quences of people’s tendencies to be promotion versus prevention focused in work settings refine and extend our understanding of regulatory focus theory.
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Received June 15, 2001