David, a web developer at General Engines, has always been feisty, with strong opinions about what should be built on the website. But right now he is pissed. His manager, Laura, just told his team they’re not getting the budget increase they requested. David shouts “customers are going to be irate when we don’t deliver the features they want!” He continues, in a heated voice, to complain that they’re not meeting customer needs.
As Laura lets him go on, she feels her own anger rising. He’s blaming her as the team leader, but she tried her best to get the increase. Her boss berated her for even requesting it, and she already feels beat up. The last thing she needs is criticism from David, and she fights the urge to tell him to shut up and get out. But she lets him finish, and when he finally does, she tells him she understands his frustration and she’s frustrated too. She sees him soften a little and start to calm down.
She explains why the company can’t afford to invest more in web development, and David eventually gives a little nod of understanding. He tells her he feels personally responsible when competitors beat them to the punch with new features. They agree to get the team together to brainstorm on how to get the most out of the funding they have. They’re both still a bit tense when David leaves her cube, but at least the intense anger has dissipated and they’re moving forward positively.
Was Laura wise to let an employee shout at her like that? Did it really produce anything useful?
Negative emotions arise to warn us that there’s something we need to deal with. When a threat appears in our environment, negative emotion alerts us of its existence and sparks adaptive action that allows us to resolve it. In short, emotion is the experiential connection between the problem and its solution. Between employee cynicism and employee engagement lies anger. Between a competitive threat and the generation of new capabilities lies anxiety. It’s a form of suicide to repress negative emotions in a team.
David’s concern was real. Laura knew customers wanted more web features, but his emotional outburst made the problem a higher priority. She couldn’t ignore it, and it prompted the team to do everything possible to address the concern. If David had repressed his anger, the team would have heard only half of the message.
When a team member is able to express even the most intense negative emotions, it can help the team’s performance. A team performs best when its members’ emotions are aroused, not too relaxed or laid back. A team’s emotional energy can easily become dull and flat over time, and the emergence and expression of a fear can provide the spark that moves them from lifeless to alert. After the team heard David’s fear-driven passion, they became more attentive to customer needs, and they won’t likely fall back into complacency any time soon.
The best team performance requires that emotions are positive instead of negative. Anger and frustration are an impediment to performance, and they don’t go away when we repress them. Often all it takes is expressing the negativity and then we’re able to let it go. We’re able to regain access to our full cognitive abilities, which means the action that comes next will be far more effective.
Giving David the okay to shout got the team stoked up, and it helped dissipate his anger. If Laura had squelched his outburst or become too uncomfortable to bear it, he would have become angrier and probably taken it somewhere else, perhaps venting behind closed doors to his team-mates. Or he could have kept it bottled up, slowly eating away at his passion.
When an emotion is processed to completion, a heightened energy and vitality arise, as when you’ve finally been freed from a debilitating burden. It allows the release of enormous energy. It reminds me of when I go backpacking, carrying twenty-five pounds on my back while I trudge along a steep trail for miles. When I finally get to the destination and remove my pack, I feel like I can fly. If I had never carried the weight or had never been able to drop it, I’d never have the invigorating feeling of flying.
Expressing intense emotion helps us understand the source of the emotion in a new way, granting access to new information – about ourselves and the situation – that was not accessible prior to the full experience of the emotion. David’s outburst helped Laura understand how important the web site really is to him. Among other things, she’ll probably make sure that in the future he hears about any funding issues from her directly.
I think expressing anger (and other negative emotion) does benefit a team, but the team should have a prior agreement that makes it okay, and there should be a few stipulations such as expressing with the intention of moving the team or organization forward. What do you think?
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