What the hell just happened?
One minute, the project is moving along. The next, chaos. Some issue suddenly rears its ugly head and throws a wrench in progress. Whether this issue started as a known or unknown risk, a once happy team is suddenly stressed. Patience is frayed. Fingers are pointing. Blame is creeping in. The project issue is fading from view. The real issue now is the negativity of the team as “we” and “us” language turns more “you” and “me”. Emotional responses are taking over as morale slips. This ain’t good!
Emotions. Oxford defines it as “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” Emotions are reactions people experience in response to events and situations. When issues arise, especially in our business and projects, our emotions can immediately get triggered. It’s natural. Whether anxiety, fear, blame, anger, or combination, there will be an emotional response.
What I’ve learned is no two people’s emotional response to a situation is exactly the same. Whereas I can take a deep breath and say OK, let’s figure this out, someone else may panic. Others will go to worst-case and some want to talk it out in great detail. Everyone has their own emotional response.
Here’s what I’ll tell you; acknowledge yours and the team’s emotions and feelings. Though everyone responds different, you may find commonalities in the feedback. Let grievances air. Bring awareness to people’s perceptions. Then, get emotions out of the way and FOCUS on the problem!
I’ve had project and other business-related situations where there was a lot of negativity in the room. Emotions ran high and everyone was blaming everyone else. There was no collaboration or coming to alignment. Instead of letting emotions take over, the team had to be focused on the right thing, which was the PROBLEM.
Emotion vs. Problem Focused Coping. Emotion-focused coping can be appropriate when a problem can’t be solved and each person needs to regulate their emotional reactions to a stressor. For example, my friend called the other day to say he has cancer (thankfully, a very curable one, but cancer nonetheless). My reaction was sadness as he and I are the same age with kids near the same age, also. Since I couldn’t change the outcome, I asked what I could do to support him and his family. Then I went to the gym and sweat it out with some battle ropes.
But in business, venting emotions needs to happen quickly and then move on. That energy needs to be saved for problem-focused coping. With problem-focused coping, the team confronts the stressor head on! Sorry something bad happened. Take a few minutes to get emotions out, then let’s solve it. The team works together to come up with solutions and takes action to eliminate it. These problems can be solved, so go solve them!
Leadership plays a large role during this time. Teams are looking for decisiveness and level-headedness from their leaders. Leaders have to bring the team from chaos, to problem solving, to solution. They understand how to balance allowing emotions to be expressed and then get the team to focus on the problem.
A former colleague of mine owns a small business doing network wiring for offices 4,000 square feet or less. Started in 2016, things were going good, until they weren’t. COVID cancelled or put on hold all contracts. Layoffs were probable if things didn’t change. He talked to his employees about the situation and naturally, there was sadness, frustration, and anxiety about the future. Once those emotions were out of the way, they brainstormed other ideas. Within a couple months, they were a successful home office wiring company. Through leadership and focusing energy on finding a solution, they were able to stay in business and are again thriving.
We can’t stop people from having emotional responses to situations. If you do, they’ll not like you for it. Instead, get emotions out, then get them out of the way. Problem-focused coping will help take that energy and find a solution to the problem you’re facing. Use emotions to your advantage!