Boost Employee Engagement by Allowing Angry Outbursts

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EmoticonsPhil, a systems analyst at General Engines, is irate. He’s on the team that supports technology for the sales group, and his boss, Jonathan, just told the team the company is not going to fund tablets for the salespeople. The sales staff is counting on Phil to get them the tablets, and he had been planning to roll them out at the upcoming annual sales meeting. Before he has a chance to think, he shouts “that is so short-sighted!  I can’t believe how cheap this company is!” The other team members squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, and Jonathan turns to look at him sternly.

In most business environments, Phil’s outburst would be unacceptable. He would be labeled a bad team player and would have done irreparable damage to his career, at least at General Engines. Yet expecting employees to repress negative emotions is unnatural and significantly damages a team.

We have little direct control over our emotional reactions in the heat of a fearful situation. Connections from our emotional systems to our cognitive systems are stronger than connections in the other direction, from our cognitive systems to our emotional systems. This means that emotions quickly override our logical thinking and our rational minds are usually unable to make our anger or anxiety go away. Phil’s rational mind is pretty much incapable of preventing his emotional outburst.

Emotional responses occur before our cognition has a chance to intervene. Our emotional systems activate our bodily response systems at the same time they activate our cognitive system. Even if Phil’s rational mind were capable of controlling his emotional systems, there’s no time to prevent the outburst because his body has already erupted into action.

Prepackaged responses to a fear stimulus, such as fear of failing, have been shaped by evolution and occur automatically or involuntarily. They take place before the brain has the chance to start thinking about what to do. Thinking takes time, but responding to danger often needs to occur quickly and without much mulling over the decision. Phil’s body responded exactly as designed to ensure his survival, except in this case, it may ensure his demise, or at least the demise of his career at General Engines.

There are two ways for Phil to have had a different response: 1) detach from the fear stimulus, so in this case become less attached to giving the salespeople what they want, or 2) reprogram his response to the fear of failing, so it doesn’t evoke so much anger. Like most people, Phil doesn’t have a clue about how to reprogram his response to fear, and even if he did, it takes time and lots of practice. Therefore, if Phil needs to refrain from emotional outbursts in the future, what would he do? He would detach from the fear stimulus, which means becomes less emotionally invested in giving the salespeople the technology they want.

When we don’t make it acceptable for team members to express negativity in business environments, we’re forcing them to detach from caring. What other choice have we given Phil? If he doesn’t want to have another emotional outburst, the easiest thing to do is not care so much.

Our inability to handle negative emotions effectively in business is a major contributor to lack of employee engagement. By definition, when employees are engaged, they are emotionally attached to positive outcomes for the business. This means that when they perceive the outcomes are not positive, they’re going to have negative emotional responses. If we don’t make those emotional responses okay in our workplaces, employees will naturally become less attached, or in other words, less engaged.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Julie Crowley  April 4, 2013

    Great article. Very true and written clearly and concisely! It has personal meaning from a past role and therefore is ‘familiar’ and a situation I come across in business often. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Maja Tibbling  April 4, 2013

    Jackie, you hit the nail on the head. Being one who has always had emotional attachment to outcomes in my worklife, I can say “Right On”. It would be so valuable if folks could become more comfortable with other people’s emotions. They don’t need to take them on, but let them happen. Also, if mainstream corporate culture could become more accepting of these emotional reactions, I do believe that there would be more folks that don’t feel the need to shut down to survive day to day interactions.

    Thanks, Maja

  3. Agnes Kam  April 7, 2013

    Great article, Jackie! Boosting employee engagement is critical in driving business success!

    I believe that allowing employees the opportunity to express their emotions and thoughts is a great way to understand their beliefs. More importantly, it helps to build trust, which is an important building block for employee engagement. When an employee is disengaged, he or she is just waiting for the next pay check.

  4. Norman S Wolfe  April 7, 2013

    Jackie, I agree that the ability of the leader to absorb negative comments is critical to ensure the important voices in a group are heard. Yes sometimes our emotions are so strong and so visceral in the moment there is no time to respond in any way other than with raw emotion. And without the ability to honor the voice even if it comes out in a strong way is important for the groups overall success.

    Yet, I do not agree with your notions that it is a forgone conclusion that our emoitons always opearte faster than our brains. Nor do I hvve to stop caring (detach from the point fo view) to be able to raise a point of disagreement without the “explosive” force of raw emotions. This is what the maturation process is all about. Otherwise we are forever reduced to two year olds throwing temper tantrums. THat is equally unacceptable.

    I don’t think that is what you mean to convey in your blog. Yet as a leader of a group I would initially reject your argument for its implications that I as the leader have to put up with immature outbursts.

    Yes, I should be able to handle it AND also help the individual to develop and mature so they can effectively communicate their points of disagreements with the need to resort to emotional outbursts. Having said that I also recognie the value and power of someone standing up so strongly for what they believe that it could feel like an emotional outburst when it fact it is true passion being expressed (perhaps discribing the difference between the two could be a theme for another blog)

    Thanks fo sharing

  5. Jackie Barretta  April 7, 2013

    Norman, the example in the article is not an immature tantrum. I think we have to be careful here because your idea of maturity is often emotional conditioning, which means shunning of emotion. That’s not healthy and is a root cause for many of the ills in our society.


  6. Rohan Keogh  May 6, 2013

    This is a very interesting concept Jackie, that will likely have strong views expressed on both sides of the argument.

    I agree that repressing emotion entirely is entirely unhealthy and unproductive. I also agree with the premise that without an alternative mechanism to manage emotion (particularly negative emotion) the only avenue is to detach from the root cause and that will definitely lead to a reduction in the “care factor”. Reducing the care factor must inevitably reduce productivity, quality and creativity of individuals and therefore deliver less than optimal outcomes. I’ve witnessed this often, first hand.

    However, it is also true that even moderately emotional responses (and at worst, outbursts) can not only distract from purpose or outcomes but can also damage working relationships. This can have the very same outcome as repression. I’ve also witnessed this. In fact, more often than not, it would seem we are in one state or the other rather than that ellusive “middle ground”.

    It would be lovely to think we all had the highest level of emotional maturity and could either deliver communication without extreme emotion OR handle extreme emotion in an objective and non-personal/non-threating way. But we don’t, so we can’t. Not yet anyway. Our species is so young, isn’t it?

  7. Deborah Scroggin  May 6, 2013

    The premise of this article adds credence to those feelings had by many employees that they can’t say anything negative within the workplace for fear of retribution. In many of my past roles, employees were not encouraged to express negative thoughts for fear of backlash from upper management, whether it be in written form on a performance review or through daily business interaction. I’m glad the connection between not expressing negativity and non-engagement has been made publicly.

  8. Maria Garcia  June 7, 2013

    Hello everyone,
    What an interesting topic. all comments I heard have validation in my opinion. We can see clearly how important it is to let our thoughts and feeling expressed according to each personality, not nesesarily maturity. The beauty of each human being is that we are all different and unique,
    that’s why we complement so well in society. If we think about how much time we spend at our jobs relating and working together for a common goal, and not being allow to have our little burst of disagreements in our own way is not a good idea. Repressing our feelings, emotions , creativity and our sense of intelligence has catastrophic consequences to our health, well being and it destroy relationships. It creates resentment, and demotivate.
    Like Jackie stated it, it’s a natural mechanism in human behavior. Suppressing feelings and emotions is not.
    I once read in a book that “people who suppress their feelings and emotions, are sick more than those who let them out”. One of the many illness includes cancer and it makes perfect senses, but this will be a different topic:-).
    Thank you all for your comments, I appreciate the thoughts of others, and special thanks to Jackie for the post.



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