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Your negative emotions are hurting your team. Try empathy instead

In a new e-book, “Leading with Empathy in Turbulent Times,” neuroscientist Jamil Zaki explores the power of positive emotions and expression to make teams better.

Your negative emotions are hurting your team. Try empathy instead
[Source illustrations: Galina Kamenskaya/iStock; Kristyna Vagnerova/iStock]
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In 2011, Google set out to engineer the perfect team, or at least understand it. In an internal analysis known as Project Aristotle, they surveyed hundreds of teams of engineers and managers, to isolate characteristics that made them efficient and effective. Before they even started, leaders at Google thought they knew the answer. They figured that talented individuals would sum together into successful teams, and that if you averaged the talent of each team member, you’d do a pretty good job predicting how the group would perform.

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It turned out they had it almost entirely backwards. Individual talent mattered, but the most effective teams were characterized by features that went above and beyond the sum of their parts. These teams exhibited psychological safety. Conversations were not dominated by any one individual, and each person felt like they could voice their thoughts freely without being judged or punished. They also were characterized by clear communication, and a deep connection of team members to the meaning and value of their work. Psychological safety had already been studied in rigorous behavioral scientific work. Project Aristotle provided yet another clear example of how much it matters.

This surprised the designers of Project Aristotle, but fit perfectly with data being collected around the same time on “collective intelligence.” Researchers randomly grouped individuals into two- to five-person teams. Each team was given a set of diverse tasks—solving visual puzzles, finding as many creative uses for an object as possible, making ethical choices together—and scored on their performance. Each team member also took a standard IQ test.

Teams varied in their collective intelligence; some outperformed others across virtually every type of task. But collective intelligence was only weakly correlated with the average IQ of team members or the smartest member’s IQ. Instead, collectively intelligent teams had three features: individuals took relatively equal amounts of time speaking, they were high in cognitive empathy, and they were populated with a greater number of women.

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Many elite workplaces fetishize the disagreeable genius, who might clash with everyone around him (and it is usually a him), but also produces dazzling, field-changing ideas. Feedback and compensation packages reward individual performers, as if companies thrive through the work of independent contractors who happen to share an office space.

They don’t. Success depends on collaboration, and agile, high-performing teams are not usually propelled by one or two hyper-skilled individuals. They depend on the whole group’s ability to share their perspectives and to see one another’s.

How empathy fuels effective teams

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As we’ve seen, empathy is more than one thing, and each type of it can fuel team success in different ways. To understand how emotional empathy—taking on others’ feelings—can help, we first need to overturn yet another stereotype. We often think of empathy as only taking on others’ pain, fear, or sadness, but people also catch each other’s joy and excitement, a process known as positive empathy.

Among teams, positive empathy can ripple across individuals, creating a sense of shared energy and drive. This is especially true when positivity starts at the top. In one classic study, small groups were asked to perform a tricky, novel task together. Before they began, group leaders were randomly chosen to watch either a clip from the The Late Show with David Letterman, meant to induce happiness, or a documentary clip about social injustice, meant to induce anger. Team members had no idea their leader had watched these videos, but nonetheless “caught” leaders’ positive or negative emotions.

This collective emotion translated into group performance. When leaders felt angry, team members put more effort into the task, but in uncoordinated ways—as though they wanted to appear like they were working hard, but were less interested in working together. In contrast, when leaders felt happy, team members coordinated more efficiently, resulting in better overall performance with less effort.

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This work also highlights a downside of emotional empathy. When teams take on each other’s anxiety, anger, or dejection, these emotions can drag down a group instead of lifting it up. And during challenging times, there may be more bad feelings to go around than good ones. There are many ways to handle negative emotions in ourselves and our colleagues.  One less-than-sterling response is to create workplace cultures in which emotions are unwelcome. Such cultures lead people to hide their experiences or feign positivity they don’t feel—a phenomenon known as “surface acting.”

Surface acting is most common during times of uncertainty, and has probably skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While working from home in 2020, team members might be going through family stressors just a few feet away from a video conference, but for the sake of professionalism pretend all is well. This style of surface acting has likely contributed to a shocking 75% rate of reported work burnout during the pandemic.

If sharing negative emotions costs groups, hiding them might cost even more. Emotion suppression—or masking one’s feelings—quickly damages mental health and diminishes our ability to think clearly. Unexpressed emotions don’t simply disappear, and holding onto them while trying to work is the equivalent of constant multitasking. In one study, people learned a series of words while asked to suppress their emotions or express them freely, and later asked to recall them. Suppressors remembered almost 30% less than expressers, a performance decline on par with surfing the internet on a laptop while watching a lecture.

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When team members hide their feelings, their entire group can be short-circuited. Emotion suppression leads people to seem distant, damages their rapport with others, and leaves individuals less able and willing to contribute their efforts to a team. This is especially likely if suppression comes from the top. In a recent study of 227 working groups in a Japanese company, leaders who discouraged emotional expression were more likely to burn out their teams, which in turn worsened their performance.

Leaders can poison their teams by making emotions off limits. Thankfully, they also have an antidote: authenticity. Authentic expression isn’t the same as venting or complaining; it’s merely the sense that individuals on a team can bring their whole selves to the table when together. The in-between moments of work—talking about kids, parents, stressors, hopes—might feel like an inefficient use of time, but it’s the opposite.

“Catching” others’ feelings and sharing our own act as a binding agent that commits teams to each other and to their collaborative work.

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Cognitive empathy, or understanding others’ experiences, is crucial in other ways, especially when team members do not share perspectives, skills, or information. Situations like these are increasingly common as teams are more likely to include people from varying backgrounds and locations with specialized, non-overlapping skillsets. Diverse teams offer immense opportunity for innovation, but they also create a greater risk for misunderstanding and conflict. A quantitative specialist might forget that others don’t know what she does, and as a result speak in jargon-ese that mystifies colleagues. One missed scowl, or an extraverted team member bulldozing quieter ones, can quickly escalate into resentment and conflict.

Cognitive empathy is a bulwark against these issues, and also boosts team performance more generally. In a recent study of almost a hundred working teams across professional services, retail, and finance, researchers examined each team member’s emotional intelligence, including their cognitive empathy. Teams high, versus low, in cognitive empathy were rated as 27% more effective, and also reported trusting each other 23% more.

When team members precisely understand each other’s experiences, they can also align more quickly on shared goals and effectively coordinate roles. You might spend four frustrating hours on a task that could take a colleague four easy minutes; using team time efficiently requires knowing what each team member knows. And they are more agile—adjusting to new realities, priorities, and moving on from bad ideas rather than getting stuck in cul-de-sacs. Because of this, cognitively empathic teams are quicker to launch and progress towards shared outcomes than less connected ones.

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Leaders should also realize they are lodestars for their team’s “emotional culture.” Whether they like it or not, their own emotions and reactions to others send groups down a clear path. A leader’s joy, disappointment, or frustration resolves ambiguity about how a team is doing, how they should interpret an outcome, and what they should do next. Feelings from the top catalyze team members, and when leaders create cultures of shared emotion, they bring teams together in solidarity and shared purpose.

There are many ways to be a wise steward of your team’s emotional culture. One is to make space for other people to authentically express their experiences at work, but also beyond it. This means being seen not just as colleagues, but also as parents, children, bakers, churchgoers, and whatever else matters to our coworkers’ identities. As the workplace culture firm Great Place to Work has documented meticulously, people who feel as though they can bring their whole selves to their jobs are more committed, productive, and creative.

Prior to 2020, team members could get to know each other during in-between moments, in hallways and happy hours. Now many of us haven’t seen an office water cooler in nearly a year. Virtual meetings from home can dry out the human side of work, which poses a major risk to the health and effectiveness of teams. But there’s opportunity as well. During the pandemic, team members have been in each other’s homes, and—usually inadvertently—met their pets and children. When that human side of working from home is welcomed, it can make even a distant team cohere.

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One major fear about remote work is that it might kill employee engagement. In some cases, it does, but it doesn’t have to. Human connection is one key to avoiding that pitfall. In a pre-COVID-19 Gallup study, researchers asked remote, versus non-remote workers how many meaningful interactions they had with leaders, for instance the frequency with which they received feedback. When people received little feedback, remote workers were indeed more checked out than those who spent time in the office. But when they received frequent check-ins, remote workers were slightly more engaged.

This is a crucial piece of data as leaders consider how, when, and whether to bring their teams back post-COVID-19. Offices are crucial to success and well-being when they provide togetherness, connection, and guidance—but with the right effort, that recipe can be reproduced even while workers are apart.

Even when leaders make space for emotion, it can be daunting for team members to walk out on the wobbly limb of open expression. They could be judged, mocked, or just ignored. Because of this, leaders should consider stepping out first. In one of the most powerful stories to emerge from Project Aristotle, Matt Sakaguchi, a group leader, surveyed his team anonymously and found out they didn’t feel particularly connected in their interactions. To remedy this, he held an offsite, beginning by asking each team member to share something others might now know about them. He started with a bombshell: disclosing that he had stage-IV cancer. His radical vulnerability brought them together, and they stayed that way.

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Some leaders believe that their job is to remain stoic, keeping their cards close to their chest so as to remain authoritative and professional. They see emotions as a weakness they should not express, so as to keep their teams keen and focused. The opposite is true. Expressing—and listening to—emotions is part of what helps groups jell quickly, stay motivated, and win together.


Excerpted from the book Leading with Empathy in Turbulent Times: A Practical Guide. Copyright © 2021 Daniel J. Edelman, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law.