Vanessa Urch Druskat and Stephen Wolff identified three foundational elements needed for team effectiveness: that teams need mutual trust among members, a sense of group identity (a feeling among members that they belong to a unique and worthwhile group), and a sense of group efficacy (the belief that the team can perform well and that group members are more effective working together than apart).
They go on to say, “At the heart of these three conditions are emotions. Trust, a sense of identity, and a feeling of efficacy arise in environments where emotion is well handled, so groups stand to benefit by building their emotional intelligence.”
So, how do you handle emotions well on a team? Here are two basic steps.
1. Label Emotions
Emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you. People high in emotional intelligence can perceive their own feelings as well as that of others. Being better at handling emotions in a team context begins with becoming more skilled at recognizing and acknowledging team members’ emotions.
When people’s emotions are acknowledged, they feel seen and as a result, it enhances their ability to regulate their own emotions and be more present and focused on the work at hand. Watch team members facial expressions for cues as one source of data to potentially understand emotions.
Paul Eckman, who is regarded as one of the best psychologists of the 20th century, was the first person to study human emotions and how they could be related to facial expressions. Here’s a quiz to assess your ability to read facial cues and learn how to be better at identifying potential emotions.
2. Give Space to Discuss Emotions
Many people have been taught to shy away from addressing emotions for fear of exasperating the situation or negatively impacting relationships. Task-oriented leaders may think that dealing with emotions takes time away from doing the real work.
Paradoxically the opposite is true. Emotion suppression, or masking one’s feelings, gets in the way of clear thinking and the ability to connect to and collaborate with others. Unexpressed emotions don’t go away; holding on to them while trying to work is like multitasking. It takes extra brain power and energy, which diminishes personal effectiveness. High team performance requires a team atmosphere in which the norms build emotional capacity (the ability to respond constructively in emotionally uncomfortable situations) and influence emotions in constructive ways. Simply begin by naming emotions that are present and tie them to a situation.
For example, “Dorris, I notice that you seem frustrated that no one is supporting your idea.” Or “As I listen to the group, there seems to be a lot of fear about not hitting our deadline.” Once you name the feeling, allow team members to respond. Don’t worry if you don’t accurately name the emotion. As trust builds, people will most likely extend trust back by offering the right emotion.
Naming emotions isn’t a license to get stuck in complaining or catastrophizing. If after naming the emotion the group begins to get stuck, simply naming that new dynamic helps the group to move out of that dynamic. For example, “Do you think we can park our fear for the rest of the meeting so that we can identify our immediate actions to get the project back on track?”
Labeling emotions allows for explicit acknowledgement and acceptance that emotions exist, and it builds understanding for how they influence behavior. It humanizes the situation and the person. Handling emotions well on a team requires empathy – understanding and accepting how emotions impact someone’s thinking and actions. With emotions out in the open, it allows for better group regulation of emotions. The group has the opportunity to reframe the situation in a more positive light or give greater understanding which can broaden perspectives and enhance group problem solving.
The next time you notice your teammates’ emotions, begin to experiment with explicitly naming the emotion and allowing people to more fully express themselves. Build team norms that support emotional acknowledgement. With small steps like these, you can consistently build trust and enhance team performance.