What to Read Next
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.
Research Updates From MIT SMR
Get weekly updates on how global companies are managing in a changing world.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
The tools available to leaders for navigating such emotional landscapes with their teams are largely outdated strategies such as encouraging general suppression of emotions at work or offering generic pep talks.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. Though that’s admittedly an extreme example, we have seen many other leaders deploy an only slightly down-tempo cover version of Ballmer’s routine before meetings, by playing uplifting music, asking everyone to share a piece of good news, or getting everyone to stand up and move around before diving into the agenda.
Alternatively, other managers rely on the mood-darkening strategy of sounding an alarm. Many believe that instilling anxiety by highlighting the cost of failure is an effective way to focus a team’s attention and effort. One newly promoted senior executive working in data security shared with us that he has found no better way to motivate his team than to openly share his concerns about the consequences of failing to meet current key performance indicators (KPIs). He reasoned that this kills employees’ complacency and pushes them to work harder.
The stark differences between these two approaches hide an important similarity: Both create emotional alignment. Both steer teams toward a shared emotional experience — rather than individualized and diversified ones. Whether a manager relies on positivity or negativity, the result is a reduction in the breadth of feelings.
Leaders use these plays because they can work in very specific situations. Indeed, an abundance of research supports the notion that increasing emotional alignment contributes to team performance, specifically when a team is executing a clear strategy. When a team shares a common mood, members are better able to converge on a single point of view and take the actions required to execute a given strategy.
However, the full story behind the consequences of emotional alignment is more complex. Because emotional alignment minimizes important individual differences in reactions to current events, it can prevent teams from building an inclusive culture, however counterintuitive that may seem. More crucially, because convergence in a team’s mood directly reduces the diversity of perspectives represented, it shapes how teams operate: When there is uncertainty about the best path forward, striving for the same emotional mood actually suppresses views critical for the creative process, decision-making, and overall innovation efforts.
Heterogeneous emotions beget diverse thoughts because of the way emotions interact with how knowledge is organized and retrieved. For example, the mood-congruent memory effect describes the phenomenon of how we are more likely to bring to mind knowledge associated with positive experiences when in a positive mood and with negative experiences when in a negative mood. The anger acquired during a grueling commute on the freeway more readily brings to mind all the pain and suffering in our lives than the joys and bright spots experienced a mere 24 hours earlier. Therefore, a collective that is in a similar mood will share a similarly biased perspective. A group with a more emotionally diverse landscape will have less bias and greater breadth in the points of view they bring to the problem at hand.
Considering Context for Managing Emotions
Rather than homogenizing the emotional experience at work, managers would be wise to deploy a much more tailored approach to emotion management that takes into account the nature of the task at hand and the ideal emotional landscape for that task.
From our observations of managers over the years and what has been discovered about emotional landscapes, we recommend that leaders start with two initial questions when aiming to architect the ideal emotional landscape in their teams:
What is the nature of the primary job to be done at the moment? Is the team’s current primary objective to execute upon a clear strategy that has already been mapped out in advance? Or, instead, do you need the team to innovate, to brainstorm, and to develop new solutions to a pressing problem?
What is the current emotional landscape of your team? Focus on what we call the “aperture of your emotional lens” to take a holistic view of your team — shift attention from individuals to patterns in the collective. Are the emotions among members relatively aligned, or are they diverse? Consider whether an external event (such as a major international crisis or a recent organizational announcement) has created a situation where team members are having similar feelings. Or, instead, has the variety of experiences in their individual lives (including such disparate events as the birth of a child, progress on a KPI, or that same theoretical organizational announcement) brought about a variety of moods? Focus on the emotional temperament of the entire group and not just one or two people.
Your answers to these two questions (execution versus innovation, and aligned versus diversified) are essential for determining which of the four emotion management strategies will be most effective. Choosing the wrong play could detract from the effectiveness of your team.
Expanding the Emotion Management Playbook
Once you’ve identified the nature of the task at hand and the current emotional mood of your team, you’ll be able to identify a strategy that best fits your current circumstances. (See “Four Strategies for Your Emotion Management Playbook.”) Below, we detail why each strategy fits with each combination of circumstances.
Nurture emotions (when the task is execution and the current emotional landscape is aligned). As noted earlier, research shows that a team is better able to coordinate on clear tasks when its members share a common mood. To benefit from this emotional alignment, leaders need to be active in encouraging and recognizing those feelings to lower the likelihood that new emotions will intrude, which would be counterproductive. Sustaining this cohesive emotional model can require some planning. If the team is upbeat, share information that will continue to rally everyone. If it’s more somber, acknowledge the mood with empathy.
One leader recently shared with us how she has been handling the rise in negative emotions of her team due to the COVID-19 crisis. She told us that at the start of one meeting, many team members shared their fears about how the pandemic would affect the company. This leader avoided the temptation to lighten the mood and instead acknowledged that times were indeed tough. By validating the team’s negative feelings and avoiding the urge to sugarcoat the current emotional state, she avoided disturbing the camaraderie of shared concern. Her team maintained a common motivation to continue executing a plan for pulling through the hard times together.
Align emotions (when the task is execution and the current emotional landscape is diverse). When your team needs to coordinate toward a common goal and you sense that it’s experiencing a wide range of emotions, the most effective way forward is to deploy a strategy that increases emotional alignment. Here, the “pep talk” or “sounding of the alarm” approaches described earlier are effective in preparing your team to execute its task.
In this circumstance, managers need to take immediate and potent actions to help team members get into a similar emotional state. Earlier this year we saw one leader of a large nonprofit enact this strategy shortly after closing all in-person operations and shifting to remote work. Some stakeholders were delighted not to go into the office, some struggled to work while at home with their families, and others were anxious about the changes. This leader began to incorporate punctuated moments during virtual meetings to highlight specific examples of how the organization was continuing to deliver on aspects of its mission that were sacred to the employees. This worked to coalesce the collective mood toward a sense of hope and optimism.
Acknowledge emotions (when the task is innovation and the current emotional landscape is diverse). When the goal for your team involves finding novel solutions to a pressing problem and you recognize that your team is experiencing a diverse set of emotions, the best way to move forward is to let those different emotions be heard and validated. Avoid opening meetings in a way that could substantially raise or lower — and thus align — the entire group’s mood. Creating room for emotional validation allows people to process their affective experiences, which is more productive than attempting to suppress them or pretending that people are unemotional robots. The diversity of emotions in the room will facilitate diversity of thought.
One astute leader uses this approach to begin her Monday morning design hackathons. Recognizing the value of a room containing a mix of irritation from treacherous commutes, elation from weekend adventures, and everything in between, she begins with an online poll asking everyone to indicate two different emotions they are feeling. With this small step, she affirms the diverse emotional landscape in the room and how it’s a perfect mix to fuel their innovation task at hand.
Diversify emotions (when the task is innovation and the current emotional landscape is aligned). As we’ve outlined, the level of innovative thinking you will get from your team will be suboptimal when there’s too much emotional conformity. It matters little whether you created this common mood or if it was the result of an external event. What a leader needs to do when a team is tasked with a creative project is to increase the complexity of the emotional landscape.
One way to do this is powerfully simple: Set the stage for an ideation session by having team members reflect on specific meaningful moments from their careers and personal lives, including when they were excited and when they were angry. Have them jot down some words that capture how they felt in those moments. The underlying magic of this process is that the range of emotions attached to this broad collection of experiences will help unleash a greater variety of thoughts and perspectives to use in the innovation challenge.
When we run this exercise in leadership development workshops, we typically ask just a subset of attendees to revisit these emotionally diverse memories. Later, we ask for a show of hands to see whether the number and variety of solutions are higher in that group, and we find that they nearly always are. This seemingly trivial intervention really does squeeze more creative thought from employees.
A note on diversifying emotions: When there is big news that creates a similar emotional response — for example, your company’s major quarterly announcement — that’s not a good day for ideation, regardless of whether the news is a pleasant surprise or a major disappointment. It will be difficult to diffuse the team’s distraction and common emotions. Consider scheduling core ideation work for another time, when the source of emotional alignment has subsided.
Although all four strategies for managing employee emotions have their places in different situations, from our experience, managers miss important opportunities by not using the acknowledge and diversify strategies. This is understandable, given that they depart from the conventional wisdom that aligning a team’s emotions is always helpful. Again, although a common mood accelerates execution tasks, it is counterproductive for the generation of innovative ideas.
For creativity, emotional diversity is key. Managers who understand this can mindfully cultivate the different emotional landscapes required for execution versus innovation. It’s not that this leadership work was not required all along. Rather, the extremely emotional and dynamic events of 2020 are finally forcing leaders to do this difficult work.
Editor’s Note: An adapted version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 print edition under the headline “How Leaders Can Optimize Their Teams’ Emotional Landscapes.”