Negative emotions in entrepreneurship

Group psychology is individual psychology (Freud, 1921), and individually experienced emotions arise from social factors. That is, emotions are psychosocial. In fact, today’s social and political environment embeds entrepreneurs in “entrepreneurial ecosystems”, which either by design or accidentally, shape their emotional and motivational responses. Yet, the predominant techno-rational approach to entrepreneurship typically overlooks these (likely) determinants of entrepreneurial motivation and success (or failure). Departing from the predominant view, Doern and Goss (2014) observe that extant entrepreneurship “research does not consider how emotions result from or shape certain social interactions” (p. 864). Specifically, Doern and Goss (2014) argue that although entrepreneurs are known to interact with various stakeholders, there is still a lack of understanding of “emotions in the context of social interactions and the implications of such emotions for entrepreneurial processes” (p. 864). That is, the authors approach emotion as a collective rather than purely individual phenomenon because it is contextual, relational, and rooted in social interactions.

In this short article, we summarize the research presented by Doern and Goss (2014) who found that for Russian entrepreneurs, interactions with “state officials resembled power rituals and created negative emotions” (p. 864), including the experience of shame and the enactment of shame management behaviors. Their main finding is that while such behaviors may help entrepreneurs “manage negative emotions, and minimize conflict” they also “corrode entrepreneurial motivation” (p. 864) and distract entrepreneurs from developing their ventures.

The authors’ main contribution is “in the discovery that for entrepreneurs, negative emotions may result from recurrent and unbalanced social interactions between entrepreneurs and more dominant parties (power rituals), and may lead to shame-related appeasement behaviors (reactive, anticipatory, and sporadic) that have implications for business development” (p. 884).

One key takeaway for us is the authors’ exploration of shame as “one of several ‘social,’ ‘other-oriented’ emotions … that have an important function to play in social interactions” (p. 866). In particular, the authors note that shame is a potential effect of the power differentials that entrepreneurs have to negotiate in the start-up phase, especially when trying to access funding.  Impression management is a critical part of this effort and any interaction that reduces “social standing” can result in negative self-representations—and shame. 

Importantly, the authors note that subordinating the self “allows entrepreneurs to deal with dominant parties, manage their negative emotions, and reduce the possibility of conflict” (p. 884); but, if this mode of interaction is not consistent with the entrepreneur’s typical style, then the negative emotions experienced as a result of this contradiction can corrode motivation (see Donald Winnicott’s description of Ego Distortion in Terms of the True and False Self) .

Further, depending on the entrepreneur, shame may be elicited by appeasement behavior, as the authors note. These effects are mediated by cultural context (this was a study of entrepreneurs working in Russia), existing self-representations, and social expectations around status and hierarchy (see Hofstead Insights and Globe 2020). Regardless, as the authors note, an “emotional spiral” may ensue and precipitate success, failure, or withdrawal from the entrepreneurial endeavor. In short, shame precipitates a range of behaviors that can “both help and hinder entrepreneurial initiatives” (p. 884) by promoting either cooperation or withdrawal.

The authors suggest that future research should, among other things, more fully examine the interplay of positive and negative emotions in entrepreneurial behaviors. One further consideration we offer is to explore the extent to which entrepreneurial behavior may reflect an effort to undo shame (see Allcorn & Stein, 2017).

Methodologically, we highlight the authors’ examination of the “broad emotional ‘tone’ of entrepreneurs’ accounts of interactions” (p. 869), as part of their data analysis process in this interview-based study. Such aesthetic considerations are critical in studying emotions and reaching insights that incorporate different layers of experience (see Elias, Chiles, Duncan, & Vultee, 2018). In studies that rely on interview data, we recommend that researchers analyze not only what is being said (or left unsaid; Cunliffe, 2016), but also how it is being said, including tone, intensity, speed, rhythm, pauses, and nonverbal cues. To add a layer of complexity, researchers might also record and analyze their own (nonverbal) reactions and emotions to participants’ accounts (see Duncan & Elias, 2020).

We share the authors’ enthusiasm about raising awareness of the role of negative emotions in entrepreneurial success, failure, and motivation. We add to it the encouragement for scholars to continue to explore the entrepreneurial mindset, and the pursuit of innovation, as a psychosocial process laden with both conscious and unconscious emotions, thoughts, and imaginings.