Teams are emotional incubators. This is because interactions in social groups are the largest triggers of emotion in humans, and why team leadership matters. People may not realize it because it happens so quickly and automatically, but emotion is triggered the moment we enter a group. We might feel the joy of entering a group of close colleagues whose company we like, or the uncertainty of joining a new group. These emotions are typically out of our awareness. If we pay attention to these emotions, they can provide us with information and be easier to manage.
Regardless of whether we are paying attention to it, since the 1950’s team researchers have referred to teams as “incubators” or “hot-beds” of emotion. This is due, in part to concerns and needs we have in team environments, but also because emotion in teams is contagious.
Research shows that a team’s culture (or climate, which emerges before a culture is fully formed), influences the emotions we experience.
Thus, the emotions members experience can tip into a downward spiral in which members feel frustrated and less connected to the people or process. This emotional trajectory can reduce collaboration and performance, and increase feelings of tension and anxiety. But, emotion can also spiral upwards toward constructive emotions to increase listening, sharing, connection and collaboration. In this trajectory, when some members feel excitement or joy in a meeting, so do we. Doesn’t the latter sound better?
Today, we know more about emotion than ever before and can anticipate and manage the emotion that floods team environments. For example, understanding how a team’s environment affects team member emotions is an important lever for team leaders.
Here’s a clip of my speaking with Daniel Goleman about this for Crucial Competence:
Susan Fiske at Princeton University and others have studied the unconscious social and emotional needs that people have when they enter a group. Here are the three core needs this research has uncovered. Understanding these essential human needs can serve as levers that team leaders can use to build team environments that create upward spirals of constructive emotion and team collaboration:
Do I belong here? Or am I going to get kicked out? You can feel the strength of this concern more strongly when you think about it as the desire not to get rejected from the group. We have a strong need that’s wired into us for not wanting to experience rejection from a group. Lots of interesting research supports this. One study showed that if even one person on the team looks askance at you, and it feels as if they don’t quite accept you, then you feel the whole team is getting ready to reject you. This concern about rejection creates a lot of bad behavior in teams. It creates a lot of moving away from the team, saving your ideas, not listening to others, frustration, these kinds of things. So, the core social need we have is feeling like we belong, feeling we’re accepted, and that we won’t get kicked out. We are always scanning the environment to test our level of inclusion and belonging.
The reason we have a control need is because it helps us not get ostracized or rejected. We want to have some control over what goes on in the team because we want control over our own fate. It also helps us feel like we have an individual role to play, and thereby contribute to the team while being empowered with a sense of autonomy.
3. Shared understanding.
We need to have shared understanding about what’s happening in the team context. When others agree with our own interpretation of the team’s context and process it gives us an increased sense of control, helping us have a greater sense of security in our inclusion and belonging. Shared understanding about the environment and some control over what happens in that environment increases our ability to determine our own fate. Shared understanding in the professional team context also helps us perform better, smarter, and with more information to inform our decision-making, prioritization, and behavior.
These three needs really drive a lot of behavior in teams, and yet most of them happen at a subconscious level. We make decisions based on whether these needs are being met, and our performance is ultimately affected by them.
How Do These Needs Play Out in Your Team?
Based on these insights, ask yourself: Are my team’s meetings facilitated in a way that meets these core needs for everyone involved? Does the meeting create a sense of inclusion or belonging for everyone at the table, or might some people question whether they are truly valued and included? Are there clear guidelines for control and ownership? Is there a shared understanding that offers access to information for all those who could benefit from it, or might some people be limited in their effectiveness based on a lack of understanding?
Take another look at the three core needs above and see how they might be missing in your teams, then take steps to implement ways to address them going forward.
Looking for more ways to incorporate emotional intelligence in leadership? See Crucial Competence: Building Emotional and Social Leadership. Interested in exploring what makes the best performing teams? See Team Emotional Intelligence with Vanessa Druskat and Daniel Goleman.