It’s the Emotions, Stupid!


Have you ever seen a scenario like the following play out? Someone new joins the company. After the newness wears off, the new hire finds someone with whom he can identify and begins “sharing” concerns about the workplace. The things he brings up, purportedly, are meant to help. After a while, the observations being offered shift from seemingly inane to almost accusatory about other members of the team. Eventually, the newbie may feel emboldened to make suggestions about hiring, firing, and everything in between as though having the authority and credibility to make such changes.

Over time, the positive culture in your department or broader category begins to turn negative at times. Other staff members come to you as a manager and let you know that they, too, have been approached by the newbie with complaints.  At this point, it is not uncommon for us to feel embarrassed, frustrated, or angry about what’s happening. We can become justifiably fearful that one person is poisoning many others. Like a contagious disease, negativity can soon permeate an organization if unchecked.

Even when organizational performance is sky high, a pervasive negative attitude can sap your group of the energy needed to sustain success. Emotions are an important part of the workplace–on both good and bad ways. Many of us have been victims of horrid customer service from employees of organizations who clearly do not enjoy what they do for a living. Contrastingly, we all hopefully have had the experience of a “Ritz Carlton” type experience where the employee loves serving customers.

Tony Schwartz, writing for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, decided to let go of (just such a) negative executive, “both because he’d lost the trust of our team, and because I didn’t believe he was capable of changing. The day I made the move, it was as if a cloud had lifted and the sun came back out.”

Lessons Schwartz took away from this experience:

  • The emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders.
  • Because it’s not possible to check our emotions at the door when we get to work — even when that’s expected — it pays to be aware of what we’re feeling in any given moment. You can’t change what you don’t notice.
  • Negative emotions spread fast and they’re highly toxic. The problem with the executive we let go was not that he was critical, but rather that he was so singularly focused on what was wrong that he lost sight of the bigger picture, including his own negative impact on others.
  • Authenticity matters because you can’t fake positivity for long. It is possible to put on a “game face” — to say you’re feeling one way when you’re actually feeling another — but the truth will ultimately reveal itself in your facial, vocal, and postural cues. We must learn to monitor and manage our moods.
  • The key to balancing realism and optimism is to embrace the paradox of realistic optimism. Practically, that means having the faith to tell the most hopeful and empowering story possible in any given situation, but also the willingness to confront difficult facts as they arise and deal with them directly.

In working with organizations on development issues and advising them on strategy, I have found that emotions are often the elephant in the room, undiscussed but omnipresent. For this reason, I often lead workshops on the topic of emotional intelligence (EQ).  When it comes to high potential leaders, EQ mentoring can help change behaviors and create a more healthy environment in which better decisions are likely to be made. 

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