One of the more challenging--and interesting--aspects of any leadership role is sensing the group's emotional state and responding accordingly. This can involve conveying enthusiasm to address discouragement, or expressing empathy to acknowledge sadness, or simply not snapping back in the face of anger.
But we tend to focus on negative emotions as the key signs that merit our close attention and care. Neuroscience research confirms what we know from direct experience: we have a keen sense for others' negative emotions, which activate a whole host of physiological and mental responses that allow us to manage both ourselves and the group dynamic more effectively. In tense or fraught situations, our focus sharpens and our reflexes quicken, allowing us to act with clarity and decisiveness. (Of course, when a situation becomes too stressful we may experience a threat response that will undermine our effectiveness; this is one reason why our leadership development curriculum at Stanford emphasizes experiential learning in settings that can evoke meaningful but manageable levels of stress, from role-plays to T-groups. Experimenting in these relatively low-risk environments prepares us for situations when the stakes may be higher.)
However, a potential blind spot we can experience as leaders is forgetting about this responsibility when the group's emotions are positive. We've just had a big win, hit a major milestone, or achieved our ultimate goal; people are happy, even giddy, and everyone feels great. What's the problem?
When things are going particularly well and people are feeling particularly good, group norms and display rules can change dramatically. And usually this is a wonderful experience. Groups need this relaxation of everyday constraints in the wake of a big success or at the end of a meaningful experience; it provides an outlet for the wave of positive emotions people are feeling and creates a sense of release and closure.
But it can also lead to a sense of disinhibition that's important for leaders to be aware of and, if necessary, respond to. The modified norms and suspended display rules that can play such an important role in heartfelt, enthusiastic celebration can also result in wide range of unintended consequences. I think of them as "high signs"--indicators that the group is going so well or has achieved such a successful outcome that people are feeling a surfeit of positive emotions, which are both essential to the meaningful celebrations we crave at such moments and yet which can also result in misunderstandings, inadvertent insults and, well, lawsuits.
Heifetz and Linsky's metaphor of the balcony and the dance floor is helpful here: if we can't join our team on the dance floor and celebrate, we'll miss out on vital opportunities to connect. (We'll also live much duller lives.) But if we can't simultaneously step back and see the bigger picture from the balcony, we'll miss important patterns in the group dynamic--those modified norms and suspended display rules that usually signify good times, and on rare (but memorable) occasions are hallmarks of trouble.
Photo by EAWB. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.