A client was describing to me the challenging week she was having; the feelings of overwhelm and the need to focus on the important priorities. Familiar territory for many leaders in today’s demanding environment; with fewer resources to hand and more on our plates.
What was of particular interest to me was the emotional zone in which she found herself and how that was the key underlying issue that needed addressing. The challenge was being sucked in by people around her who were actively seeding negative emotions.
The metaphor we came up with to describe this situation was that it was like vampire bats, sucking the life blood out of team members and creating an environment of negative emotions. Whether those people knew it or not, this was an active process, that each team member was contributing towards. Situations may start with what appears to be ‘harmless gossip’ but can so quickly escalate into behaviour that borders on bullying or harassment.
Vampire bats are, contrary to popular belief, highly intelligent. They are also very agile; according to the US-based Conservation centre, they can “run like a spider, jump like a frog and even do cartwheels”. For me, this perfectly describes those people we know who create turmoil in the team and then scurry as far away from the resulting upset.
So what’s the role of a leader in these situations?
Step one is for the leader to put themselves into a place of positive emotions. Putting ourselves into our renewal zone is vital to prevent us from being dragged into the emotional turmoil that our blood-sucking team members are creating.
Have you ever tried to pull someone or something out of the mud, when you’re sinking into it yourself? This is why the safety briefings on airlines tell us to put our own oxygen mask on first “before helping others”. Regular practice might include
- Receptive renewal: prayer, meditation, or inner contemplation
- Active renewal: swimming, yoga, or tai-chi: focused activity that requires inner focus and movement
- Energetic renewal: sports like tennis, cricket, or ski-ing
- Instant renewal: humour, laughter and the release of endorphins
Step 2: understand underlying causes of emotional negativity. We all get out of the bed on the wrong side once in a while; we get tired and overworked, or have an argument or break-up with a loved one. However, it’s important to distinguish between the cause of negative emotions and the resulting behaviour. Understanding is not the same as condoning.
Step 3: it’s vital for leaders to create, maintain or restore the positive emotional tone that supports and motivates the whole team. Having put ourselves into that positive state, even if that involved a two-minute walk away from the office building, we now have to go back and restore positivity.
This step benefits from allies: we all know someone who’s the ‘office clown’. They can see the funny side of situations, whether or not it’s PC; it may also involve what’s known as ‘gallows humour’ especially in the military or emergency services.
Step 4: it’s only when the emotional equilibrium is restored that leaders can set the emotional tone for the future. This needs to be achieved quickly for three reasons:
- While the recent upset is in the air, it’s easier to remember the emotional state that people don’t want
- The sooner that negative issues are addressed and resolved, the quicker and easier it is to move on
- Being seen to deal with these issues, raises peoples’ respect for you as a leader
Setting the emotional tone means being clear about what behaviours is, and what is not, tolerated in the workplace. Creating an environment where everyone can feel comfortable and, most importantly, treated fairly when something does go wrong raises commitment to the team, the leader and the organisation.
It’s easy for leaders to make excuses about ‘being too busy’, or ‘we just need to get the job done’ and let poor behaviour thrive. However, like a leaking bucket, team members’ enthusiasm and commitment – and consequently their ability to perform at their best – is drained by their colleagues’ negativity.
Having the courage to address and restore a positive working environment sets the emotional tone and puts you into the heart of the leadershipzone.