How leaders can manage team emotions and influence outcomes

Doctoral researcher Evangeline Yang describes how emotions spread among team members—and what leaders can do to set the tone.

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By Evangeline Yang

Evangeline Yang
Evangeline Yang, doctoral candidate

From emotional intelligence to emotional burnout, more and more leaders are recognizing the importance of managing employees’ well-being. After all, happy employees tend to have better job outcomes. However, a key aspect of emotions at work that has received less attention is team emotions.

Managing team emotions is not simply taking care of each team member’s feelings. Although emotions are often thought of as an individual experience, members of a work team can actually share similar feelings and moods to form team emotions at the collective level.

How do emotions converge in a team?

Think about your own experiences working in a team. Have you ever felt like a teammate’s anger can somehow spread to the rest of the team? Just like how the behavior of yawning is contagious, people can also “catch” others’ emotions like a virus. For example, participants in one research experiment actually experienced the same emotions that a hired actor in the group intentionally expressed.

This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion. When we unconsciously mimic the facial expressions and body language of our teammates, we actually end up feeling their emotions ourselves, thus creating a ripple effect.

In addition to this unconscious mimicry, members might also consciously alter their emotions to fit in. This is especially common for newcomers, as they have not yet learned the emotional norms in the team. Thus, to avoid displaying inappropriate emotions, they simply copy their teammates’ emotional expressions.

Moreover, team members can also share similar emotions because they are exposed to the same work events. Compliments from the manager could lead the team to collectively feel joy, or tight deadlines could lead the team to collectively feel anxiety.

Lastly, personality research suggests people have a predisposition, called “trait affectivity,” to experience more positive or negative emotions in general. Since we are often drawn to others who have similar personalities, it’s likely that employees who tend to feel more positive emotions will self-select into teams that are composed of individuals who are also inclined to experience pleasant moods, resulting in emotional convergence.

How do leaders impact team emotions?

Regardless of which route members come to share similar feelings, it is important to note the crucial role leaders play in shaping team emotions. Because team members generally pay more attention to their leader, they are more likely to unconsciously mimic the leader’s facial expressions. In other words, a leader’s emotions are more contagious than the average team member’s.

Employees might also look to their leaders to evaluate what emotions they are supposed to express and feel in the team. Furthermore, leaders have power over the emotional work events the team is exposed to, as well as the emotional composition of the team.

Taken together, it is clear that leaders have great influence over the emotions team members experience. With this mind, let’s now talk about what leaders can do to make sure team emotions eventually translate to better team outcomes:

Promote more positive team emotions. Research shows that shared positive feelings have many beneficial effects on teams. When members collectively feel positive emotions, such as happiness and enthusiasm, they tend to be more satisfied and cooperative, and ultimately perform better.

Leaders should model positive emotions themselves and let that emotion ripple through the team. They might also give praise or words of encouragement to induce positive emotional reactions from team members.

Cultivate a healthy emotional culture. Just like organizational cultures, emotional norms and values can also form emotional cultures. For instance, an emotional culture of companionate love motivates affection and caring among employees. One study showed organizations with a companionate love culture tend to have lower absenteeism, less emotional exhaustion, higher job satisfaction and better teamwork.

To establish a healthy team emotional culture, leaders should make it clear to members what emotions are encouraged and valued in the team, or even incentivize these emotions to set the foundation for the desired emotional culture.

Be mindful of the emotional team composition. So far, we’ve been focusing on the convergence of emotions in teams. Yet, when employees of varying levels of trait affectivity are put into the same team, their feelings may diverge. Though relatively less understood, emotional diversity has been found to damage relationships and lower performance in teams.

Thus, leaders should take employees’ emotional traits into consideration when forming work teams to ensure the emotional fit among members.

Evangeline Yang is a doctoral candidate in the Organization and Human Resources Department at the University at Buffalo School of Management. Her research interests revolve around the topics of diversity and emotions. She teaches organizational behavior and human resources.

For more on emotions in teams, don’t miss her presentation at this year’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (CLOE) conference, titled “The Future of Leadership: Changing the Way We Live and Work.”

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