Fuel Innovation thru Negative Emotions

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Have you ever seen a leader authentically invite employees to openly talk about whatever they’re feeling, even when it’s anger directed toward the leader or the company? Chances are you haven’t, because most leaders would consider this inappropriate or losing face, and they avoid it. However, these leaders miss out on a great opportunity to stimulate creativity and innovation.

Emotions arise to warn us that, if we’re interested in progressing, there’s something we need to deal with. When a threat appears in our environment, emotion alerts us of its existence and sparks adaptive action that allows us to resolve the threat. 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. But this works only when we embrace rather than resist the emotion.

When a leader creates a space for even the most intense emotions to be processed, it allows the release of enormous energy and provides fuel for creative action. The genuine airing of emotions helps us dissipate the fear and anxiety, and provides access to a confidence that naturally translates into effective action. It helps us understand the source of the emotion in a new way, granting access to new information – about the self, others, and the situation – that was not accessible prior to the full experience of the emotion. When an emotion is processed to completion, a heightened energy and vitality arise, as when you’ve finally been freed from a debilitating burden.

But we’ve all seen negative emotions take over and create emotionally toxic work environments. How can we contend with emotions in a way that is progressive and transformational rather than let them overwhelm us?

Leaders intelligently handle intense negative emotion when they create a safe space for them to be expressed, with the stated intention of resolving them. This means authentically inviting the full expression of any emotion, even if it’s anger directed towards the leader, followed by an acknowledgement of what was said and no repercussion against the employee. Because the leader intentionally creates the space, this signals that he/she is ready to listen and bring resolution, and is confidently up to the task. This allows them to save face, as long as they can truly listen and remain non-defensive. Many times expression is all that’s needed, whereas other times the expression prompts action. My experience is that when I’ve done this as a leader, it has prompted some of the best shifts in thinking that have led to the most innovative outcomes.

In business we think emotional intelligence is controlling emotions, to ensure that negativity doesn’t impact performance. However, it’s not intelligent to avoid negative emotions. Avoiding negative emotion may feel more comfortable in the short run, but it becomes debilitating in the long run, as the emotion continuously clouds the creative process. Instead, if we’re willing to tolerate the discomfort of feeling the emotion, we can use it to generate a potent innovative vitality in an organization.

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, including research references, 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. Nik Nikkel  December 10, 2012

    I love this. We spend so much time personally and professionally dodging negative emotions. Your posting suggests that we use the energy in these emotions rather than suppressing it. The concept is like that in the martial art of Aikido where the opponents’ attack is not met head on, but redirected to protect oneself, and provide the energy to neutralize the opponent.
    If we suppress the expression of emotion in a group, we lose the information about what really upsets them and what really engages them.

  2. Ava Stevens, MBA  December 10, 2012

    In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson exclaimed “you can’t handle the truth” and I feel managers are comfortable not hearing about negative emotions. I posit there is a yin and yang to organizations; if half is quashed then the organizational world is out of balance. Realisticallythough negative attitudes can spiral out of control and then the group becomes dysfunctional. There needs to be a framework to encourage open honest discussion with parameters. As a manager I strive to find balance to encourage constructive dissent.

  3. Jan Roxburgh  December 11, 2012

    I really liked this article, Jackie. Found myself thinking that some of the workplace violence that we read about in the news might be prevented if there was more openness towards negative expression between employees and employers BEFORE things completely boil over. It is so important that people feel acknowledged/listened to…

    Thank you for being part of the change that is needed.

  4. Dionne Lew  December 16, 2012

    This would be a powerful way to create an emotionally healthy culture. The emotions are there anyway, so better to work with them in constructive ways.

  5. Glen Fahs  December 16, 2012

    Yes, anger is not as Marc implied, dangerous in most people. It is a normal emotion that asks for attention. Being acknowledged and validated for one’s feelings is often enough to let them go and participate in problem solving. When people back away or suggest a psychologist, it is like a person who feels wronged being sent to a lawyer. That’s why people get sued so much. They aren’t willing to listen with care and problem solve with upset people.

  6. Pamela Brooks  December 16, 2012

    Thanks for sharing Jackie, I agree that learning how to channel the negative emotions into a positive solution outcome is a great way to create positive change. The key is a great leader not only listen, but can then channel the energy into a positive outcome or solution instead of just a vent.

  7. Ken Hultman  December 30, 2012

    One of the books that had a great influence on me was Milton Rokeach’s, The Nature of Human Values (1973). He argues that belief, attitude, and value change are unlikely unless there is some form of self-dissatisfaction. If people are content with themselves and their situation, typically there’s little motivation for self-examination and personal change. Self-dissatisfaction is an emotion, so unhappiness with ourselves can serve as a catalyst for positive change. I have found both as a therapist and as an OD practitioner that people seek me out when they’re displeased with something. Unfortunately there are many unhappy people who don’t see help, feel defeated or give up. Others, as we see in situation like the recent tragic incident in Connecticut, turn their unhappiness into rage and express it violently. In terms of organizations, Kotter and Heskett’s excellent book, Corporate Culture and Performance (1992), point out that non-adaptive organizations are characterized by arrogance, insularity, and bureaucratic centralization, supporting a value system that emphasizes self-interest. In other words they become complacent and see no need to change. There is no dissatisfaction that might cause them to keep their eye on changing circumstances impacting their position in the marketplace. As others above have stated so well, to prevent this employees must be able to express their anxiety and other feelings to leadership in an open and frank manner, so the organization has the information needed to remain adaptive and make positive changes. In order for this to happen, a real and not just an espoused value for the truth is very important. All people have feelings about what’s going on. Whether they express them or not depends largely on how enlighted the leaders are. Closing the door to emotions doesn’t make them go away; instead they go underground and resurface in other, unconstructive, ways, such as low morale and productivity. Leaders who want to hear what employees are feeling not only gain respect, but the information necessary to remain viable, solve problems, and grow.


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