I witnessed an argument among teammates the other day that made me realize how inept we are at dealing with emotions in the workplace. In fact, grade school kids are better equipped than most adults at resolving conflict.
I was working with a team that’s building software, and they were planning their next big meeting with their client. Mitch, an analyst fresh out of college, wanted to demo the software the team had been building during the client meeting. Even though it wasn’t finished, he felt they could explain that to the client and still get some valuable feedback. Sara, the seasoned project leader, stated that a premature demo could easily turn into a disaster, and she wasn’t going to let that happen. Mitch didn’t like that answer, but he seemed to go along with it. However, I could see his anger building during the remainder of the meeting, and while we were wrapping up, he said to Sara angrily “you’re not open to new ways of doing things”, and he went on to chide her for shutting down progressive ideas. As he was speaking, I could detect the anger welling in Sara. When he finished, she retorted “you have a problem with me because you think I’m old and out-dated, and I don’t think you would question my decision if I were a man”, and she went on to furiously tell him why she should be listened to. A simple disagreement about demoing software had turned into a rift that will likely outlive the lifespan of the team.
What can we learn from fourth graders about this? Kids are being taught to resolve conflict by taking responsibility for their feelings rather than blaming them on someone else, and they do this by expressing how they feel in “I statements”. So if Robby calls Suzy a name that makes her mad, Suzy is taught to form an “I statement” such as “I felt mad when you called me a name because you were making fun of me”. Instead of Suzy throwing accusations at Robby, she’s owning her own feelings and not projecting her anger onto Robby. It’s a healthy way to deal with emotions, and adults can learn from it.
Mitch and Sara were experiencing typical emotions that arise all the time in teams, yet they let the situation turn into a damaging interchange of accusations. Instead, Mitch could have said something like “I felt rejected when you disagreed with my suggestion because it was a good idea”. And Sara could have said something like “I felt offended when you questioned my decision because it showed a lack of respect”. Stating the problem in this way doesn’t solve it but it’s a healthy way to surface it. They could have then had a further discussion about the decision or about respect, or they could have just let it go while being aware of each others’ feelings. Most importantly, they wouldn’t have created the accusatory interchange that will live on in their memories, tainting their relationship. However, we have a big issue to overcome before we can bring such healthy practices into business.
Here’s the biggest problem with emotions in business: we don’t believe they should exist. We like to pretend they don’t exist, and if they flare up to the point they can’t be denied, they are to be eradicated. We can accept that they’re present in a fourth grade classroom but we discount them in an office building. In fact, it’s more acceptable in business to accuse someone of age discrimination than it is to admit you felt offended when they questioned your decision.
Accepting that we have emotions and taking responsibility for them isn’t about being soft or nice, but rather it’s about being clear. We carry them with us wherever we go, including the office, so let’s accept them and learn to use them wisely. In fact, emotions aren’t just a necessary evil in a team, but rather they are the primal factor influencing a team’s ability to thrive in today’s complex and demanding business environment.
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.Share