The Emotional Impulses That Poison Healthy Teams

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review

https://hbr.org/2015/07/the-emotional-impulses-that-poison-healthy-teams

Is anyone really an individual contributor at work anymore? I think not. Pretty much everything we do is done with others in groups. We’re tasked with planning and completing projects together. We negotiate roles and resources. We talk to one another—or text, tweet, email—and sometimes we listen, too. We’re dependent on and beholden to people above, around, and below us for collective success. We develop habits, over time, that dictate how we behave with one another. Add this up and you’ve got the definition of team: people who share a common purpose and goal, who have distinct roles and responsibilities, and who adhere to certain rules of interaction. Teams are everywhere at work. Sadly, though, most of them aren’t terribly effective—or fun.

How can we improve teams? How can we make them an aspect of work that contributes to our happiness rather than adding to our misery?

To start, we need to pay more attention to how important teams really are in the workplace. In most organizations, there’s a subtle undervaluing of teams. For example, while many companies nod to team-oriented behavior in performance management systems, it is not uncommon for this line item to be divorced from rewards and compensation. This reinforces the notion that we don’t have to pay attention to teams or teamwork (after all, we aren’t rewarded for it). What ends up happening, then, is that teams wither on the vine, at best. At worst, people—team members or leaders—are free to engage in bad behavior which leads to dysfunction, less than optimal results, and miserable team members. It doesn’t take much to blow up a team like this…and many of us have done it.

Paradoxically, it helps to learn what not to do with teams, before moving to what to do to make our teams more effective. Let’s look at some common mistakes even good people make when working together:

  1. Forget your emotional intelligence (EI) and let your amygdala do the talking: Act on feelings and impulses, and don’t filter what you signal, say or do. Don’t let pesky things like social constraints or norms get in the way. Get really pissed off—and stay that way—when someone gets more than you do. Stereotype people who are different from you. Say what’s on your mind then excuse your behavior by telling people that you’re just honest and transparent, which maybe you are, but you’re also just being mean, and if it’s your direct reports, you’re bullying. Unfortunately, given the stress that people deal with at work today, an awful lot of people are walking around in a permanent state of amygdala hijack.
  1. Stick to your guns: Awful phrase. How about “My way or the highway”? Same idea. If you want to ruin a team, be rigid, single minded, and obsessive about your goals or how to get things done.
  1. See the glass half-empty: If you want to mess with people’s minds and kill a team’s spirit, focus on everything that could go wrong. Scare people. Be cynical. Emotions are contagious; and negative emotions and the cynicism and biting humor that go with them kill the trust, creativity, enthusiasm, and happiness that are so important to group success.
  1. Truly don’t care about people: I once worked with an executive who was, in fact, blowing up his teams­—and his family. He was at risk of losing the prize at work—the CEO job he’d been promised because he got results. The leaders of this company had, thankfully, figured it out. That this guy got results at the expense of every person and team he touched. Naturally, these results weren’t sustainable. When I asked him why he did this, he told me straight out: “I don’t care about those people.” “Really?” I asked. Underneath this total lack of empathy was a profound belief that his goals, and his way of accomplishing them, were more important. And he was smarter, so what those other people needed—well, it just didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he realized that he was blowing up his family—his wife was about to leave him and his kids had given up asking him to do things with them—that he understood why he was ruining every group and ultimately every part of the business he touched.
  1. Don’t think too much—especially about your motives and feelings: Lack of self-awareness, whether conscious or not, is at the heart of pretty much all of the bad behavior I’ve seen in teams. Take the executive I mentioned above. When we really got down to it, the reason he was blowing everybody up was because he was scared. So, he got them before they could get him at work. And at home, he was scared of intimacy. Yes, he loved his wife and kids. But he just wasn’t ready for real intimacy—so he kept them all at bay.

Far too many of us work in groups that are more than dysfunctional—they are painful and they make us very unhappy. Unhappy people aren’t good workers, and that’s the least of it. People who are unhappy at work are unhappy at home, which means families are unhappy. And on and on it goes. We are better than that. And we can do something about it.

Working effectively in teams takes effort—and it takes emotional intelligence. If you want your team to be healthy, resonant, and effective, take responsibility for the way you show up and what you do.

Studies conducted by Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff show that emotional intelligence is essential for team effectiveness. They also show that when more members than not use their EI on a team, that team is more likely to develop norms that support trust, team identity, and sense of collective efficacy. These are the kinds of norms that support sustainable collective success.

Other studies have looked at the relationship of EI to managing conflict on teams, and not surprisingly, there’s a link. For example, Ayoko and colleagues explored the relationship of EI to climate and conflict. They found that there was more conflict around tasks and relationships when empathy, emotional management skills, and conflict management norms were less developed among team members and leaders, the climate suffered—and so did outcomes. Jordon and Troth presented similar findings when they looked at EI, problem solving and conflict resolution in teams.

Working well in groups demands high EI. And if you are going to develop self-awareness, not to mention other competencies like empathy and self-management, you’ll need to go deep. That’s because improving your EI is as much about personal growth as it is professional development.

A final note: That executive I worked with? He worked hard to develop his EI, especially self-awareness, empathy, and self-management. He got the job. And he applied what he learned about himself and his impact on others to his family. He started really seeing his wife and kids, maybe for the first time in years. It took time, but they became close again.


Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.

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