Outspoken and aggressive, David Weiss, a web developer at General Engines, has always voiced strong opinions about the look and feel of the company’s website. When his manager, Nancy Colletto informs his team that she cannot approve their urgently needed budget request, David loses his cool. Turning red in the face, he shouts, “This company doesn’t give a damn about the customers who visit our website. They’ll take one look at our old stodgy design and go looking for a smarter supplier.” His teammates just squirm uncomfortably in their chairs.
David’s outburst ignites Nancy’s own anger. She had pushed so hard for the increase that her own boss told her to back off and go back to her people with the business case for a flat budget. She feels like someone has put her head in a vice. Taking a deep breath, however, she smiles and calmly says, “I understand your frustration, David. I feel exactly the same way. Look, we’re in this together. Why don’t we show them we can pull a rabbit out of the hat?” She goes on to explain why the company can’t afford to invest more in web development at the moment. Eventually David grins and holds up both hands. “Hey, I just can’t stand it when competitors beat us to the punch with smart new web features. But I’ve got a couple of ideas that won‘t cost another dime.” Freshly energized, the team begins to brainstorm how they can get the most out of their current funding.
In most business environments, David’s teammates would not have tolerated his outburst. His uncontrolled display of anger would have earned him a reputation as a bad team player and could have done irreparable damage to his career. Yet no one on a team should expect people to control their emotions 100 percent of the time. Trying to do that can cause its own set of problems.
When that shark fin surfaces a few feet from you, you cannot stop fear from jangling your brain. Input from our emotional systems affects our cognitive systems much more swiftly than vice versa. Strong emotions quickly override our logical thinking and prevent our rational minds from ordering our fear, anger, or anxiety to go away. Emotional responses occur instantly, before our cognition can possibly intervene. Not even David’s keen intelligence could stop him from instinctively lashing out when he felt threatened by insufficient resources. Lucky for him, Nancy knew how to deal with such emotional displays and turn them into a positive force.
Most employees don’t risk such emotional outbursts. Instead, they tamp down their emotions by reducing their emotional attachment to their work. Highly engaged employees form deep emotional attachments to their work. They feel deeply passionate about doing a great job and getting excellent results. When danger strikes, they naturally experience equally strong negative emotions. By disengaging, they reduce the chance that their emotions will cause problems when something scary happens. It’s a lose-lose proposition. The employee loses the spark that leads to stellar performance; the employer loses the great results, innovations, and creative solutions it needs to succeed in a tough competitive environment.
Wisely, Nancy kept David engaged by allowing his outburst, then skillfully shifting his focus from the negative to the positive. She used his strong engagement to help solve the problem that set him off in the first place.
We can take another important lesson from the way Nancy handled David’s negative emotions. While the team surely felt discomfort over David’s eruption, the incident did bring certain benefits to the situation. Despite the intensity of his outburst, he expressed some valid concerns. His rage rang a loud warning bell that the team should address a real and immediate problem: creating a fabulous website with limited resources. An unemotional, dispassionate response could have easily gone unheard. When the threat appeared and the alarm sounded, the team tackled the threat with gusto.
The expression of negative emotions can spark a team from lifelessness to alertness. Optimal mental functioning depends on emotional arousal because emotions contribute greatly to attention, perception, memory, and problem solving. Without emotional arousal, we can fail both to notice important danger signals and to muster enthusiasm to address the threat.
Teams cannot capture the benefits of negative emotions unless they feel they can safely express them without getting criticized or punished. A leader must deliberately create this safe space because most people assume that expressing strong negative emotions in the workplace will get them in trouble. A safe haven should include specific rules that draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
As we learn more from neuroscience and psychology about the incredible power of our creative minds, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team dynamics to increase creativity and innovation, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance to be published by the American Management Association, get a free download of Innovative by Design, or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.Share