by Jackie Barretta, author of “Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance”
Emotion, more than anything else, spells the difference between stellar and mediocre team performance. Fear and negativity keep a team stuck in old patterns, while optimal emotions have the power to sharpen minds and spark breakthrough innovations. It is a primal factor that can literally fire up or flatten and dampen the individual creativity or each and every person involved. The outcome of the way emotion is handled by a leader determines whether the organization innovates and solves problems creatively and consistently.
Trying to eliminate undesirable emotions the people on your team is like trying to blow the spots off a leopard. Not only does the leopard keep its spots, but it gets so upset it may bite the hand that feeds it. The spots are primal, woven deep into the leopard’s nature. The same goes for your team’s emotions.
Leaders can deal with emotion in ways that generates trust, mutual respect, and even devotion. When they act positively and deliberately to embrace emotion, they can have a huge influence on a group’s ability to innovate and adapt.
Here are some examples of the most important actions leaders can take to inspire an unprecedented level of performance:
1. Make Room for Negativity.
Highly engaged employees form deep emotional attachments to their work. When resources they need are not available or a project doesn’t go as planned, they naturally experience strong negative emotions. These emotional responses are primal and occur before their cognition can intervene. If leaders don’t make it okay to express negativity, employees will tamp down their emotions by reducing their emotional engagement with their work. The intense release of emotion also helps employees process through the negativity, and it can spark the entire team from lifelessness to alertness.
2. Enliven the Positives.
Our brains naturally respond rapidly and powerfully to the scary, negative stuff. To build a positive work environment, leaders have to make the positives emotional enough to push aside the fear. Strategic plans and revenue charts, no matter how compelling or upward-trending, can never fire up our emotions as much as a compelling story about how the team’s work improves lives. The more vividly you can describe the positive impact of your work on peoples’ lives, the more you will populate your team-mates’ conscious minds with 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-mates. Make this your motto: “Expect people to do the right thing, without the need for a lot of rules.” This practice visibly lights up a team. It resonates. And it gets results. When people feel trusted, they act more trustworthy.
4. Take a Break and Play Around.
Spontaneous play makes a team feel positive and aroused. It also fuels their primal emotional systems, ensuring keen motivation and emotional resilience. Optimal play feels fun and pleasurable, the way you feel after a rousing game of Nerf dodge ball or ping pong. 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. This gives their minds a needed respite that will help them come up with aha! answers to challenging problems.
5. Cultivate the beginners mind.
Help your team approach each situation with freshness and novelty, so they can continuously come up with better solutions. Get into the habit of exposing your whole team to different perspectives, urging them to look at an old familiar situation or problem as if they had never encountered it before. Try putting your team in the shoes of their end user, or stir up novel insights by shifting responsibilities, or challenge their deeply-rooted assumptions. Help them let go of the idea that so-called experts know it all. This will keep their emotions aroused, open them up to fresh ideas, and make them more inclined to offer their own ideas.
Jackie Barretta has a 25-year history as a successful Fortune 500 C-level executive and Big Four consultant in the Information Technology industry. She is a Founding Partner of Nura Group, a consulting firm dedicated to enhancing team innovation and performance. The author of “Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance“, she is also a Practice Director at Virtual Information Executives, where she provides technology consulting to higher education institutions.