Managing Emotion in Your Team
How to Maintain Harmony in a Group
"Leave your emotions at the door" was once an unwritten rule of working life. Even in a crisis, or when celebrating a big "win," keeping powerful feelings to yourself was part of being professional.
Today, things are different. Leaders understand that deep emotions like pride and passion can inspire people to achieve. And, research shows that organizations whose workers feel safe and comfortable enough to express their feelings are more productive and creative. 
So, emotions are part and parcel of office life, and most of the time there's no need to be afraid of them. But, when emotion gains the upper hand within a team, it can impact productivity, morale and professional reputations.
In this article, we discuss when you should intervene in emotional situations, and how you can restore calm while still respecting your team's emotional needs.
What to Do When Emotions Run High
Imagine arriving at work to find team members sobbing in the restroom, shouting across their desks, or celebrating their latest deal a little too wildly.
Your first instinct may be to respond like an angry parent. But you know that telling everyone to "calm down" or "grow up" will likely only make a bad situation worse.
But you can't ignore the problem, either. The emotional upheaval may leave team members feeling awkward, upset or even frightened. It's up to you, as their manager, to get the situation under control.
So, when you face an emotional situation that's become disruptive, aim to:
- Stay neutral: taking sides, attributing blame, or reacting with anger or frustration may "add fuel to the fire." Instead, take a deep breath, and speak quietly and calmly to reset the mood. Show that you're in control of the situation, and of your own emotions.
- Call a time-out: in the heat of the moment, it can be hard for people to back down. So, give them a chance to step aside with dignity, perhaps by asking them to take a walk around the block, or to meet in your office.
- Acknowledge what's happened: after you defuse the situation, let onlookers (and your own manager) know that you're going to deal with it. This helps everyone to see that the issue is being managed, and signals that they should return to work.
Never try to physically remove people from highly emotional situations. They might view it as aggression. If you feel threatened, remain calm and report the incident to your manager or supervisor. Or, if there's violence involved, call security or the police.
Five Ways to Handle Emotions in Your Team
When the emotional upheaval has died down, your task is to discover and understand its cause, and to restore a lasting calm. These five steps can enable you to do so:
1. Find Out What's Going On
Sometimes, people just need their feelings to be acknowledged. They will likely feel relieved when you engage with them about the issue.
So, after an outburst, make time to meet with your team members in private. This is your chance to get to the heart of the matter.
Begin by asking simple questions, such as, "It seems that you have strong feelings about this – what's behind it?"
Use your active listening skills, and pay close attention to the answers. People might feel threatened, or think that they've failed in some way. They may be worried about workload, and feel that they can't cope. Or, perhaps they are euphoric after beating the competition to a big sale.
To make sure that you've understood everyone's replies, reflect their language back to them. For example, you could say, "So, you're feeling stressed about the tight deadline – is that right?" Give everyone the chance to agree or disagree. This doesn't mean that you agree with them; it just affirms their feelings.
Interpersonal conflict is a common cause of heightened emotions in the workplace. Our article, Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict, can enable you to identify the cause of an argument. Also, our Bite-Sized Training session, Managing Conflict, and our article, Resolving Team Conflict, can help you to devise strategies to resolve it.
2. Address the Issue
Once you've heard your team members' points of view, try to agree a way forward that addresses the issue.
For example, you might be able to restructure the team's workload to reduce stress. Or, you could arrange mediation with other team members, or plan a team celebration in recognition of a recent success.
Write down what you've agreed, and ask the people concerned to read and sign the document, so that everyone knows the next steps and commits to them.
But, remember that not all emotional reactions at work are triggered by work. A team member might feel short-tempered because he or she is the exhausted parent of young children, for example. In these cases, simply let him talk. You don't have to offer advice, and you likely won't be able to transform the issue. So, just hear what's going on in his life.
Seek support from your HR department, if necessary, and direct your team member toward your employee assistance program, if you have one.
3. Adapt to Changing Emotions
Check in regularly with your team members to gauge how each person is feeling. It could be as little as five minutes set aside at the end of one-on-ones or team meetings.
This need not be structured time, and you don't have to respond to your team members' concerns straight away. Just give them the opportunity to be heard.
If people don't want to talk, their body language can provide you with clues. A team member who's clenching her jaw, for example, might be stressed. Slumped shoulders could indicate disinterest or disengagement, while quivering and fidgeting could suggest excitement.
As you learn how your people are feeling, try to attune to it and adapt your management style accordingly. Even small gestures like bringing in cookies when people are up against tight deadlines can boost motivation and make people feel supported. Equally, calm, measured tones of voice can help to settled excited nerves.
4. Lead From the Front
You can't tell people how they should manage their emotions, and you can't manage their feelings for them. But, you can offer an example for others to follow.
The key to this is to develop your emotional intelligence. People with high emotional intelligence recognize and acknowledge their emotions, but they aren't driven by them. For example, they may feel angry, but they hold back from "acting out" their feelings.
Instead, they showcase the behavior that they expect from their team members, such as dignity, restraint, diligence, and self-awareness, while remaining authentic. In short, they are in control of their emotions, rather than controlled by them. (Our quiz can help you to establish your how emotionally intelligent you are.)
Our article, Six Emotional Leadership Styles, explains how you can apply emotional intelligence to a variety of situations in order to get the best results from your team.
5. Spot the Early Signs of an Emotional Crisis
Ignoring a full-blown emotional outburst isn't an option. But if you observe more subtle emotional behaviors, such as a team member who seems withdrawn or irritable, it can be best to maintain a watchful eye rather than to take action straight away.
This may sound counterintuitive. But even the most capable, professional people can have "off days" when they feel moody, distracted or agitated.
Your people need to know that they can talk to you if they want to, but they may not feel like talking at all. Sometimes, people just want to "keep their heads down" and get to the end of the day.
If they're not causing a problem or upsetting others, consider letting things go for a short time. The emotion might just play out. However, if it persists the next morning, it may be time to start figuring out what's wrong.
Emotions in the workplace are nothing to fear. But, if they become disruptive, it's important to deal with them properly.
In an emotional crisis, it's vital to show that you're in control. Stay calm, defuse the situation, and give your team members the chance to walk away with dignity.
Strong emotions can be clues to problems that people have at work, or issues that need to be acknowledged. Give them the chance to talk through these issues in private. Be sensitive, but remind people of their professional responsibilities, too.
As a manager, you can lead by example, and take steps to improve your own emotional intelligence. This will make you better able to gauge the emotional "temperature" in your team.
Many strong emotions will simply "blow over." If it's not a crisis situation, try letting things lie overnight. If the strong emotions persist, gently ask what's wrong.