5 Ways to Control Emotion in High Performing Teams

Your employees are your most important asset - give them the tools they need to succeed. ( iStock )

How do you handle an emotional situation among your employees? The way you respond as a leader can determine whether your business can innovate and solve problems creatively and consistently, or whether it becomes mired down in confrontation and low employee morale.

“Trying to eliminate the undesirable emotions of the people on your team is like trying to blow the spots off a leopard,” says Jackie Barretta, author of the book Primal Teams ($24.95 at bookstores). In other words, she explains, the spots are inherent to the leopard, just as emotional responses are inherent to your employees. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t modify your employees’ emotional responses to work-related situations.

“Leaders can deal with emotion in ways that generate trust, mutual respect, and even devotion,” says Barretta. “When they act positively and deliberately to embrace emotion, they can have a huge influence on a group’s ability to innovate and adapt.”

Barretta offers these five insights on how to turn fear and negativity into positive change:

1.  Make Room for Negativity
Highly engaged employees form deep emotional attachments to their work - that's partly why they're good at what they do. When resources they need are not available or things don’t go as planned, they naturally experience strong negative emotions. Barretta says these emotional responses occur before their cognition can intervene (you’ve heard of a “hair-trigger temper”). If as a manager, you don’t make it okay to express negativity, she says employees will tamp down their emotions by reducing the emotional engagement in their work. The intense release of emotion also helps employees process through the negativity, and it can create new energy within the team by knowing they can express their feelings freely and that you care about their opinions.

2.  Enliven the Positives
“Our brains naturally respond rapidly and powerfully to the scary, negative stuff,” says Barretta. “To build a positive work environment, leaders have to make the positives emotional enough to push aside the fear.” Strategic plans or an overview of best management practices, no matter how compelling, won’t motivate your team as much as a compelling story about how the team’s work improves lives, she says. The more vividly you can describe the positive impact of your business on peoples’ lives, the more you will increase emotionally positive thoughts that spark peak performance.

3.  Loosen the Rules to Unleash Teamwork
Resist the urge to impose restrictive rules in your team. When people feel trusted, the chemical oxytocin surges in their brains, and they become more cooperative, more generous, and more caring with their team members, Barretta says. Make this your motto, she suggests: “Expect people to do the right thing, without the need for a lot of rules.” This practice resonates with a team and gets the results you desire. When people feel trusted, they act in a more trustworthy manner.

4.  Take a Break and Play Around
Spontaneous play makes a team feel positive and creative. It also fuels their primal emotional systems, ensuring keen motivation and emotional resilience, Barretta says. Some farms have pool tables or ping-pong tables in their break rooms. Others plan an activity for their team on a monthly basis. "To increase the creative problem solving of your team, have them take a break and play after they’ve explored all possibilities and reached an impasse," Barretta says. "This gives their minds a needed respite that will help them come up with 'aha!' solutions to challenging problems."

5.  Cultivate the Beginner’s Mind
Help your team approach each situation with freshness and novelty, so team members can continuously come up with better solutions, Barretta suggests. Get into the habit of exposing your whole team to different perspectives, urging them to look at a familiar situation or problem as if they have never encountered it before. "Stir up novel insights by shifting responsibilities, or challenge their deeply-rooted assumptions," she says. "Help them let go of the idea that so-called experts know it all. This will keep their emotions active, open them up to fresh ideas, and make them more inclined to offer their own ideas."

Bottom line, as an owner or manager, you'll reap the rewards with a more motivated, energized team. That's a good thing, for you as well as your team.