Powerful emotions – yours or the team’s – expressed unexpectedly can lay waste to effective team working. But they don’t have to. If you have the presence of mind and the physical resilience to work with and through them, they could even have a positive role to play.

There are two challenges to anyone wanting to be more emotionally literate: First, there is no magic formula.  Take the basic technique which suggests that when faced with, say, anger, you acknowledge the other person’s emotion. This is fine, but when faced with someone who seems angry, delivering the scripted line ‘I can see you’re angry’ or ‘you seem angry’ will generally make them suddenly twice as angry, most of it directed at you for making such a fatuous remark.  At which point you are emotionally triggered, decide the techniques don’t work and start shouting instead.  But the anger directed at you is fundamentally a Good Thing: it means the anger is flowing more freely, and will dissipate more quickly. Providing (there’s always a catch, isn’t there?) you do nothing to block the emotion. Which brings us to the second challenge.

Culturally (and we speak for the Brits here) we do not like emotions in the workplace, and our instinct is that the most helpful way to deal with them is to try and put a lid on them.  Hence most individuals faced with anger, rather than say “I can see you’re angry”, will say some version of “There’s no need to get angry about this”.  What the other person actually hears is: “I think you’re an idiot for losing control of your emotions”.  At a basic level, what you are doing here is blocking the energy of the other person, whereas acknowledging the emotion, giving permission for it to flow, unblocks it.  

Have you ever flown Alitalia? As the plane touches down, the Italians on board burst into spontaneous applause. Jokes about Alitalia’s ageing fleet aside, why are they doing this?  Because they have learned, culturally, that it is more healthy to get suppressed emotions (anxiety, in this case) out as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the English passengers tut disapprovingly and say, “Typical Italians: they don’t know how to control their emotions.”

A classic situation in which a leader is on the receiving end of anger is when dealing with resistance to change. Imagine you are standing in front of a group of disgruntled managers whose roles have changed and who feel unprepared and uncomfortable. They will not tell you this of course: what they will more likely tell you is that this is your fault, that the change was ill-conceived, unnecessary, we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work then either – need we go on? Or imagine facilitating a team of disgruntled leaders who have to work positively together, but the discussion is getting dangerously heated. How would you feel faced with that? Affronted perhaps; threatened; outraged; and yes, maybe angry yourself. Now get the textbook out and hear yourself saying “I can see you’re angry”…… 

Here’s an alternative way: we watched a senior leader fielding ‘questions’ (actually she was standing there while people lobbed verbal grenades at her) about a change project. Rather than take the politician’s line of trying to prove how great everything was going (which would have angered the group even more), she asked questions to understand the group’s concerns and then restated them. (“So if I understand correctly, your main concern is the effect on interdepartmental relations”…).  What was interesting was she did not once say she agreed, or that they were right to raise it. She just worked to show that she had heard and understood.  Within 15 minutes, the anger in the room had dissipated and the discussion became a constructive review of how the change could be more effectively implemented.

Why did this work so well? First, it was authentic, driven by the leader’s genuine desire to get behind the team’s anger. Second, she did nothing to block the emotional flow. Trying to put a lid on it, or use logic to prove everything was OK, wouldn’t work. While it is true that there is no magic formula, success inevitably comes from mastering those two qualities: being authentic – not following a script, but working from a genuine intention – and working always to allow feelings to flow without being blocked, so that they dissipate as efficiently as possible. You might call this ’emotional fluency’ – being competent in the language of feelings, and also bringing a sense of effortlessness. (Oh, and remember to breathe….!)

Phil Lowe is a Holos Change Agent and Co-Facilitator of the Future-Proof Leadership Programme.

Leave a comment

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments