Stop Letting Emotions Hijack Your Teams

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Have you noticed that you can be in a good mood and then walk into a meeting and suddenly you’re feeling negative or disheartened, and you don’t even know why? Researchers have proven that three people can sit in close proximity, and within a minute or two the most emotionally active will have transmitted their mood to the other two, even without saying or doing anything. Unfortunately, the most emotionally active person in a meeting is often the one who is carrying anxiety or feeling melancholy, and that then becomes the prevalent emotion for the entire team. Given what we now know about how emotions can hijack a person’s ability to make good decisions and come up with good ideas, we can’t afford to let a team’s emotions run amok. But how do you take control of a team’s emotions?

First, make sure you don’t get sucked into the negative emotions yourself. It’s critical that you intentionally remain an observer rather than unintentionally have your own emotions hijacked. Protect your own mood by self-managing your emotions to stay positive and enthused. If this seems foreign, check out this helpful resource from an organization called HeartMath.

Next, detect the group’s emotions to determine if there’s something you can address through words or action. Perhaps they’re feeling underappreciated and need some kudos, or they may feel a fear of failure and need some encouragement. So figure out what’s going on by “feeling into” the team and sensing how your body feels. The ability to do this is backed by a large number of experiments using functional MRI that have shown certain brain regions are active when people experience an emotion and the same regions are active when they observe other people experience the same emotion.

When you “feel into” another person, you’re using your lower level reptile brain, which is seldom used in business. It perceives thru subtle, instinctive vibes. To feel into another person, project your awareness to the other person, envision moving down in your brain toward your instinctive senses, and notice the way your body feels.

It’s important that you are able to recognize how various emotions feel in your own body. You may need to work on expanding your sensitivity to emotion by paying attention to the sensations in your body when you experience particular emotional states. For example, when I feel frustrated or overwhelmed, my arms throb and feel tired and heavy, as if I’m carrying a big load. When I’m afraid of failure, my feet feel leaden and I get a burning in the pit of my stomach. When you feel into another person, you’ll perceive their emotions the way your body feels that emotion, even though the emotion may feel different to them in their body. So feel into the group and see what you can detect, and see if you can address it through words or actions.

Of course there are many times when there’s no business solution for the emotions that are being felt. The emotions could be arising from the sadness a team-mate feels in their personal life or from anxiety arising from the hectic world we live in. What then? If that’s the case, it’s time to use a technique to re-shape the team’s emotions.

Science has proven that a person (the sender) can intentionally facilitate positive emotions in other people (the recipients). The sender does this by directing compassion-infused attention towards the recipients. It’s important to note that the process is most effective when the sender focuses foremost on achieving an optimal emotional state themselves rather than focusing too much on changing the recipients. It seems that if the sender focuses too much on imposing their emotional state on the recipients, this creates a sort of performance anxiety and negatively influences their own mood. I find that the best results are achieved when I focus on reaching my own optimal emotional state while breathing in, and then direct it to the recipients while breathing out. You can use this technique to literally re-shape the emotions of your team-mates, and they don’t need to have any idea that you’re doing it.

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. Tammy Ray  November 25, 2012

    Enjoyed reading – I say this all the time did you feel the emotion in that meeting? Thanks for sharing!

  2. Andrew Miller  November 25, 2012

    Thanks for this Jackie — I like the emotional wildfire metaphor. And I think it happens in families and across larger groups and whole organisations and even countries too.

    A little along similar lines to “compassion-infused attention” perhaps, I believe sometimes one way of proceeding is simply to ask the group to notice and say what’s going on for them – to invite the team to attend carefully to their own emotions and allow everyone to explicitly share whatever they feel safe to share. (Of course, even with skilled facilitation, this process too can be hijacked, but then that in turn becomes a phenomenon in the team that is worth inviting the group to notice and talk about, if it happens.) The act of encouraging understanding will allow helpful change to emerge, I believe.

    I do wonder if anyone can control a team’s emotions, however much they influence them, sometimes very powerfully. I don’t know, and I can think of examples from history where it seems like a group’s emotions were controlled. But I think your blog points to the essentially uncontrollable nature of group emotions in suggesting useful steps we can take to avoid being overwhelmed: if someone else could control my emotions, any effort to avoid being sucked in would be futile.

    I’m also not sure we can even really control our own emotions, though I think we may choose some of our expression, attitude and behaviour (breathing is always good!) in response to our emotions, and so allow them to modulate or shift. I guess that’s a topic for debate that has lasted throughout the history of psychology and philosophy!

  3. Edward Lewellen  November 25, 2012

    Jackie, thanks for sharing this information! This all very familiar to me because of my training in NLP and hypnosis. Entrainment is a very powerful force and can be experienced by people that are separated by quite a bit of distance, not just in a closed environment. That feeling of someone looking at you and, when you turn around, there IS someone looking at you is a good example. I’ve read many fascinating studies on how quickly entrainment takes place and the sustainable impact it can have on people. So, when you talk about it affecting people that are in the same room, you are on-target!

    To be able to protect ourselves, our mind must be strong by removing all of the “stuff” that weakens it, along with our emotions. Negative thoughts, self-doubts, out-dated beliefs, and out-dated programs that were installed in our minds that aren’t congruent with our purpose in life all make us vulnerable to other’s thoughts and emotions.

    When a person has congruency and alignment in their beliefs, thoughts, actions, and behaviors, both consciously and unconsciously, then they will be the one that reshaping the emotions of their team-mates, not the one being shapped by them. They are living intentionally.

  4. Cheryl Swann  November 25, 2012

    Great article. I work in a small team and one person’s emotions can affect the entire group. And that’s whether the emotion is happiness, sadness, disappointment, fear of failure, frustration or pride in a job well done! We’ve been working together as a team for over a year and have come to know each other pretty well. It’s easy to gage each other’s emotion. I’m going to focus more on my own mood and avoid negatively impacting my team. I’ve ordered the free download of Mastering Group Energy. Thanks for this post!


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