I’m in the midst of a series of posts exploring our profound conflict aversion and its toll on businesses, teams, and individuals. In previous posts, I shared a couple of the things we’re taught as children that give rise to our conflict aversion: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” and “Mind your own business!” Today, I’m taking aim at a third source of our conflict avoidance, our fear of triggering emotions. Is the likelihood that you will make a teammate angry or upset sufficient cause to suppress important issues?
Think back to your childhood. You’re a pint-sized, snotty nosed version of yourself, just learning to make your way in a world crowded with other people. You haven’t quite mastered playing nicely in the sandbox and you’re quick to defend your turf (not to mention your shovel and your toys). One day, a kid steals your ball and you defend a little too strongly. Suddenly, your playmate is in tears—the kind of projectile tears that summon an adult from miles away. As the grown up arrives on scene, you are summarily convicted as the guilty party and admonished with the line, “NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!”
That was the day you learned that triggering emotions is bad, and, that someone else’s emotions are your fault. Fast forward to the work world and now you avoid or soft-pedal any conversation that might risk eliciting an emotional reaction. As a result, the emotional types (the yellers, the huffers and puffers, the criers, etc.) are holding your team hostage. No one is willing to risk lighting the powder.
It’s time to debunk your fear of emotions. Emotions aren’t toxic. If you see an emotional reaction from a colleague, here’s what it means:
- They give a damn. If you see emotion, you’ve hit on something important. People don’t yell or cry in response to things they don’t care about. Everyone is so desperate to have engaged employees—caring about something enough that you might get emotional is a sign of engagement. It’s not weird or wrong to care about things at work—it’s good.
- You surprised them. When you don’t expect something to hit you in the gut, that’s when the intensity of emotions overflows the banks. If you don’t want to see an emotional reaction in your colleague, you’re better to give the person a heads up so they can process ahead of time.
- There’s something deeper. Emotions don’t just spring from nowhere. When you see them, it means there are issues beneath the logical and rational aspects of the problem you’re discussing. If you see an outburst, you can be sure that something the person values deeply has been questioned or compromised.
Take the story of Monica, an executive in a global high tech product company. On this day, I was facilitating a session with Monica and her five male colleagues (including her boss, the CEO) when, unexpectedly, Monica started to cry. The men shifted uncomfortably in their seats and dropped eye contact. I’m sure they were silently trying to decide how they might plot their escape from the room (feign a coughing fit, pull the fire alarm?).
Backup 10 minutes. We had been discussing the growth of the company and the plans for the future. All the talk was focused on the small, newly acquired business unit, rather than on the large, mature unit that Monica led. As the facilitator, I could see her frustration mounting, but I wanted it to play out a little longer. When Monica finally took the floor, it was clear why she was angry. Although her business unit was the largest and was responsible for the lion’s share of the revenue and an even greater percentage of the profit, it got little attention. The CEO didn’t spend much time with Monica’s people. R&D money was going disproportionately to the sexy new unit. And the last three acquisitions all landed there as well. Monica had been trying to get attention for her team and her business and no one was listening. She was exhausted from flying all over the world to see customers and as we started talking about what her unit needed, the tears start to flow.
We didn’t stop the meeting. We didn’t take a break. No one pulled the fire alarm. I simply said to Monica, “ok, this is important.” I calmly, rationally, and kindly asked a few questions to get at the underlying issue. “Where are you at?” “What is this issue about for you?” “How do think this will play out?” I treated the emotions and the underlying values as just another data set, as valid and important as any facts or information that we could have been discussing. By keeping the intensity as low as possible, I was able to help Monica get through the emotion. The tears didn’t last long and she was soon back to the measured, pragmatic, tough senior executive we were all used to.
It turns out that it was the best thing that could have happened. The CEO admitted in front of the whole team that he’d been on a dangerous path of over-investing in the sexy new unit and starving the business that is paying the bills. The whole team talked about how Monica’s pleas had fallen on deaf ears for so long and how they could surface the issues sooner next time. The emotion did its job, it signaled to everyone that there was something really important going on under the surface.
If you see emotion, address it. Make it clear that you’re willing to consider the facts, feelings, and values that are part of any issue. But don’t be held hostage by emotions. In the end, your obligation is still to make the best decision for your organization.