Management can be a subtle art, requiring hard and soft skills in abundance, in addition to unshakeable professional poise. Repeated exposure to all kinds of chaos is common, and character building stuff for even experienced senior managers.
Some of the most volatile situations however, develop from the expression of emotions. Emotional responses develop through a 3 stage process:
Subjective experience- this is something in your environment, it could be anything in life, for example traffic is making you late for an important meeting. This makes you feel frustration.
Physiological response- this means your body’s response to the experience. In this case, your heart rate and blood pressure might increase, you might feel an adrenaline rush, your body temperature may increase, and you may start to sweat.
Behavioural response- this is how you externalise the emotion you are feeling. During the stressful drive to work you may appear visibly angry, perhaps even externalising stress verbally; shouting at cars, people and other unfortunates who happen to be in the way. Upon arriving to the office you try to calm down, but it is likely that you still feel tense, and it is this ticking time bomb that a patient manager may need to defuse.
So what techniques can a manager employ to manage their team’s emotions?
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Encourage open communication
The first thing any manager should do is to establish an open line of communication. Team members must feel they can come forward to talk about any subject without fear of reprisal or judgement. In our above mentioned example, a frustrated colleague will feel far better having someone to confide in, even if it is something as innocuous as traffic.
A good tactic to encourage candour is to help your team see you as an equal or a friend, rather than as their boss or superior. A common go to is to ask about their personal lives, without being invasive. Breaking down this barrier will go a long way to establishing the kind of trust that comes from colleagues regarding you as ‘on the level’.
It is always important to remember when establishing a judgement free zone that people are different. What enrages one person may wash over another, so what is more important is figuring out what makes your team members tick, and being ready to console them on their worst day, or champion them on their best.
Watch for warning signs
It’s estimated that we spend up to one third of our time at work, so it’s safe to say we get to know our colleagues well. Use this insight to catch any warning signs before they can develop into an emotional crisis.
Many times team members can just be having a bad day, so it is wise to simply make a mental note to keep an eye on them at first, but if they continue to regularly exhibit a particular negative emotion, then it is time to gently intervene. Always be discrete and private wherever possible.
Burnout is a particularly important symptom to be on the lookout for. A heavy workload can sap motivation, leading to a lack of satisfaction and even feelings of inadequacy. It can lead to employees feeling unrewarded by the mount of time they commit to their work, or that they lack any control over their professional life.
Stay neutral in a conflict
As much as you may feel like it sometimes, your team members are not children, so squash the urge to respond to volatility like an angry parent. You don’t want to undo all the hard work you have put in getting your team to trust you.
Instead stay neutral, to avoid your own feelings entering into a team conflict. This also prevents you from inadvertently adding fuel to one side of the argument or the other. Ask both parties to step aside, and if possible, to cool off for a bit before you speak to them. Never get involved physically, call security or the police if a dispute becomes violent.
After defusing a situation, acknowledge what has happened so that onlookers, and your own manager, know that you are going to deal with the issue. This is important in helping everyone to see that any issues will be managed, and that they can return to work.
Address the issue
After a conflict take the time to meet with team members in private. Let them talk, using your active listening skills and simple questions to get to the heart of the matter. Circle back and repeat answers to make sure you have fully understood their issue, before you try to solve it.
There are numerous actions you could take to settle a conflict, but always employ a method that allows team members to take ownership of their actions in future. You could employ mediation between two parties for example, and after noting down what everyone has agreed to, get them to sign a document with behavioural steps to commit to.
Perhaps your team is struggling with burnout. You may need to adjust individual workloads, or change how you incentivise or motivate your team to feel rewarded by what they do. Sometimes convincing team members to just use up some holiday will give them the break they need to feel refreshed and recharged.
Not all emotional reactions at work are caused by work, so you may have to take a different approach that doesn’t necessarily ‘solve’ the problem. A team member struggling with problems in their personal life may just need a sympathetic ear, whether or not you can actually help them.
As a manager you have to lead from the front, and that means setting an example for your team to follow. If they see you compromised by an emotional response, they may internalise it, or at the very least take your side out of loyalty, potentially creating a workplace schism.
So don’t get caught out. See volatile situations in a different light, an opportunity to demonstrate your self-restraint, rather than caving to your own emotions. However, that doesn’t mean your feelings don’t matter, or don’t exist.
Talk to your own manager or superior about difficult situations, and use your actions as an example to your team, even talking through why you acted the way you did, if you believe it is a good learning point.
Finally, always try to keep morale high, whatever the situation. Positivity and hope are powerful motivators that feed your team’s inspiration to get the job done, whatever the circumstances.
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