Emotions are running high. The disruptive events characterizing 2020 — a global pandemic, climate-related disasters, economic uncertainty, and social discontent — are leading employees to bring a higher level of emotionality to work than ever before. This is clashing with the culturally ingrained norm that an appropriate “professional” demeanor minimizes emotional expression.
At the same time, work on emotional suppression suggests that there are long-term costs to keeping emotions buried and that, if stifled, they will erupt in counterproductive ways. For that reason, leaders can no longer avoid taking an active role in architecting emotional landscapes — the collective composition of employee sentiments. Because emotional landscapes directly influence how employees make sense of situations, tasks, and what actions to take, they can help or hinder the pursuit of organizational strategic objectives. By supporting emotional expression within their teams, leaders can help their organizations function at their best.
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The tools available to leaders for navigating such emotional landscapes with their teams are largely outdated strategies such as encouraging general suppression of emotions at work or offering generic pep talks. Leaders need a playbook for responding to employees’ emotional states with more nuance and, critically, in ways that are tailored to the situation. We offer four plays — to nurture emotions, to align them, to acknowledge them, and to diversify them — that allow leaders to manage the loaded emotional settings they’re working in and help creativity and productivity thrive.
Limits of the Traditional Emotions Playbook
Based on our executive leadership development work with global Fortune 100 companies as well as our ongoing research in this area, we’ve noticed that leaders tend to overly rely on two plays from the old, traditional playbook of emotional management of teams and organizations: giving a pep talk and sounding the alarm.
Many managers remain enamored with the notion that rallying a positive, high-energy mood in a team is an effective strategy for obtaining exceptionally high performance. Accordingly, many managers adopt this play when kicking off meetings by pumping up their team to elevate everyone’s mood. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously illustrated this approach with the fervor of a rock singer at a music festival.