Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We are emotion workers as well as knowledge workers

  • Human beings are great imitators and mimics, In groups - whether face-to-face or virtual - we often 'catch' the strong feelings of others and converge, or synchronize, emotionally. Emotions can be triggered by what we see, what we say, how we say it, what we don't say, what we do or don't do, and how often. There are multiple emotional triggers and reactions which make our emotional lives complex and tangled - rather like my photograph of trees on the left which itself can trigger a mix of emotions (or so I'm told). But because emotions are complex and messy doesn't mean we can ignore them. No matter how rational and objective we try to keep our professional activities, we all know that emotions impact our team decision making, engagement, actions, cohesion and performance. What's interesting is how unconcious emotional contagion can be.

    Very recently, Facebook data scientist Adam D.I Kramer analyzed postings by about 1 million English speakers and their roughly 150 million network friends in many countries. He found that people who used emotionally powerful words like 'happy', 'hug', 'sick' and 'vile' in their status updates generated similar emotions in later postings by their friends; friends were using more negative or more positive words (or at least fewer negative words) for up to three days after the original posting. Were people concious of this emotional contagion? Perhaps, some.

    Other research indicates that negative emotions are more powerful than positive emotions, and, of course the emotions of the leader of the can have great influence. Distance can reduce awareness of - or even caring about - our emotional impact on others on the team, which is a problem. Whether we lead or participate in virtual teams, we must become more aware that we are engaged in 'emotion work' - work aimed at creating a productive emotional climate.

    What does performing this 'emotion work' involve? Increased:

- Self awareness about our moods, our emotional triggers and their possible negative and/or positive impact on others

- Self-awareness about how our moods are demonstrated in our verbal, non-verbal and written virtual communications

- Ability to switch from one mood state to another - from negative to positive

- Awareness of how culture can influence the impact of emotional triggers

- Sensitivity to signals that emotions - positive or negative - are being transferred virtually and how to redirect, if necessary

- Caution about our judgement of other's ideas when under the influence of strong negative or positive emotions

- Resistance to the strong emotion of others

Some might say "Isn't this emotional intelligence stuff a bit passe?" That suggests emotional intelligence can be treated as a passing fashion, and that perhaps we need to get back to the real work of generating team performance - like setting up effective rules, processes and systems. Well, those are important, but they are only part of the performance equation. Emotions can be difficult, tangled, unpredictable, a real challenge; but it's in such challenges that profound opportunities for a team - and individual - development reside.

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