Managers: Tapping into Emotions for Greater Team Productivity

Mar 16, 2015
9 Min Read

Fear, anger and frustration can undermine team performance, but research shows how managers can take steps to ensure team members have more positive emotions that lead to greater productivity.

In a recent survey, 46% of employees report they’d prefer to do anything else than sit in a team meeting, with 17% reporting they would be willing to watch paint dry and 8% saying they’d be willing to endure a root canal.

That level of dislike is a wake-up call for managers who need teams to be engaged and positive when they’re together – not  grumpy, bored and frustrated.

But how do managers inspire the right kind of emotions in team members so that it drives high-level performances?

Jackie Barretta (pictured), author of “Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance,” says research by neuroscientists on emotional systems shows that there are a number of ways that managers can jump start enthusiasm, innovation and productivity within teams.

For example, the opportunity to experience something new “jazzes people,” she explains.

Of course, that might be easy in a high-tech industry that offers continual challenges, but what about the warehouse worker who deals with the same widgets every day? In that case, Barretta suggests periodically shifting responsibilities among workers. The forklift worker might switch with the shipping and receiving worker for a time, she explains.

Another way to maintain enthusiasm in a team involves using a “creative cycle” to organize work. She suggests that the movie industry provides a great example of how to do this as they come together to envision a blockbuster, then create it in about a year and disband when it’s done.

If you have teams that are getting bored by constantly meeting to make minor tweaks to a product, for example, you can try rotating new people in and out so that bored team members are exposed to more exciting work every once in a while. The new people brought into the team find the work novel, and that way employees stay more engaged because the leader is “looking at the work in terms of phases and cycles and adding variation to the equation,” she explains.

Another idea is incorporating play into a team’s routine. While workplaces such as Apple have been  playing games like office Nerfball since the 1970s and find the playful atmosphere sparks greater creativity, not all companies have successfully done the same. The problem, Barretta explains, is that leaders try to turn the work into play such as offering a week off to the person who first discovers a solution to a customer problem. That strategy just leads to problems when team members begin competing against one another for rewards – instead of playing together for the fun of it, she says.

She stresses that play should be spontaneous – such as asking team members for an impromptu game of Kick-the-Can.

While some of these ideas may make more reserved managers cringe at the thought of having to get team members to engage in lunchtime ping pong, Barretta says that managers can easily influence team members to be more positive with subtle things such as offering a genuine “thank you.”

“People want to feel good about what they do and where they are. Team bonding is a primal need – people are receptive to it,” she says.

Here are some other ways Barretta, founding partner of Nura Group, suggests that managers can shift team emotions to positive ones that will lead to better business results:

  • Find the beat.  A study by Barry Bittman, a neurologist, found that when people participate in in a group drumming exercise their bodies showed significant signs of improved health. “If you and your people engage in a game of Nerfball or Kick-the-Can, you can surely learn to bang a drum or play a kazoo,” Barretta says. “Tapping on bongo drums and rattling tambourines brings people together physically, emotionally and mentally.” Further studies by Bittman have revealed that worker burnout [click here to open Arianna Huffington: Interview on How to Avoid Burnout at Work] has been relieved through drumming exercises. Employees in government and health care have participated in such exercises, as well as workers in companies such as Toyota and Raytheon.
  • Go for the funny bone.  Mayo Clinic research finds that laughter lightens your mood and leads to physical changes such as endorphins flooding your brain. If you don’t have a class clown on your team who knows how to crack everyone up, then try visiting comedy clubs together or passing along silly jokes. A favorite of Barretta’s: “How many programmers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None. That’s a hardware problem.”
  • Face it. Research by Paul Eckman, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Francisco and facial expressions guru, found that researchers who frowned repeatedly as a way to study the face soon discovered they were not only beginning to actually feel sad, but their heartbeats accelerated. It was revealed that even though the researchers were frowning as part of their job, it was causing significant changes in autonomic nervous systems and generating feelings of anger and distress. To show genuine happiness to your team (fake grins are easy to spot), think of people who always make you feel great and it’s likely you’ll wear a real smile that your team will appreciate and reciprocate. Offer genuine compliments to others and you’ll soon have a smiling team, she adds.

Finally, Barretta says that manages shouldn’t try to deny that there may be negative feelings by some team members and so should create a “safe haven” that includes specific rules about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In other words, let them know it’s OK to express unhappiness with a process, but not to throw a book at a team member.

“The team member must invite people to share their emotions and explain why doing so will help the team improve performance,” she explains. “Just as no question is a stupid question, no emotion is a bad emotion.”

Recomended Posts