Phil, 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.Share