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Harvard Business Review: Turn Your Team’s Frustration into Motivation

November 11, 2020

Setbacks and adversity are inevitably accompanied by negative emotions. Someone who has lost a big account, been passed over for promotion, or produced poor quarterly results is bound to feel disappointment, frustration, or anger.

Most leaders, confronted with an upset team member, view negative emotions as a contagion to contain before it infects the broader team. Or they see them as a problem to be solved quickly so that people can return to normal. But our work with sports coaches and business executives has shown that leaders can learn to help team members channel their negative emotions and turn them into powerful tools for motivating demoralized people and unlocking their potential.

The inner dissatisfaction and energy that accompany negative emotions can propel people to higher levels of determination and hard work. When members of your team face disappointment or failure, you can use it to empower or strengthen them. It comes down to knowing how to have productive conversations around negative emotions. Here is how to navigate three key moments in a conversation to channel negative emotions into positive growth:

Label the negative emotion and engage. Many leaders either try to rescue people from negative emotions or retreat from them. Neither approach is effective because both simply paper over strong feelings, ignoring the energy seething underneath. Instead, engage disappointed team members. Name the negative emotion and invite them to talk about it. A senior partner I worked with at a Big Five consulting firm was passed over for promotion. He was subsequently shown the anonymous, highly critical feedback from his peers that had led to the decision. He was shocked and hurt. Many people in his circle tried to rescue him from those emotions. They told him he was terrific, that he shouldn’t get down on himself, that he would bounce back in no time.

The well-intentioned reassurance had one effect: It ended conversations. “It didn’t help,” he said. “I had nowhere to take the discussion after that other than to murmur some disingenuous thanks.”

There is a more effective approach: label the emotion and invite a response. “It sounds like you’re really disappointed,” I offered. After a long pause, he said, “Honestly, I’m not disappointed — I feel betrayed.”

Don’t worry about being wrong, as I was. Just take your best guess. When you put a label on someone’s emotion, they will instantly either agree or correct you. They won’t be able to stop themselves. After the executive I was working with corrected me, we both had the information we needed to move forward.

He told me how angry he was, but also how hurt. He said he wanted to fight, but also to quit. As he poured out his feelings, he grew visibly energized. The energy under the emotion surfaced. It is that energy that you want to channel in a constructive direction.

Feed the self-coach, not the self-critic. Once the emotion has been identified and the raw energy underneath is exposed, remember that it’s just that: raw. At this stage, it could trigger the positive self-coach voice that says things like, “I clearly have a blind spot; I need to invest more time in understanding how I’m perceived by others.” The energy could also spark doubts about one’s abilities and trigger comments like, “people have finally realized I’ve been faking it all this time.”

The positive self-coach is helpful; the self-critic is self-destructive. Effective coaches engage people in creating a productive answer to the question, “What is this emotion telling me?” The self-critic answers with a list of character defects: “I’m stupid, lazy, unlikeable.” The self-coach answers with a list of actions: “I need to work harder, think differently, and recruit support because I’m not there yet.”

You can amplify the self-coach’s voice in a demoralized colleague and muffle the self-critic by framing negative emotion as a sign of meaning. For example, you could say, “This really matters to you doesn’t it?” or “I can see how important this is to you.” Seeing negative emotion as a sign of passion can help feed productive motivation.

You can also trigger the self-coach by sharing your stories to counter the self-critic’s tendency to make unfavorable comparisons. “I’m not creative” is shorthand for “other people are more creative than I am.” As a leader, you can help deflate the self-critic by candidly sharing your own experiences with struggle and growth — key moments where you felt you weren’t good enough and were subsequently able to push forward.

Channel energy to action. The energy that underlies negative emotion can be channeled into things we can control or toward highly unproductive ends. One particularly unproductive outlet for teams has been identified by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, in their book The Art of Possibility. They call this dead end “the conversation of no possibilities.” Instead of taking control, the team talks only about how bad things are. Such conversations can be seductive because they build a sense of connection among participants, but they ultimately lead nowhere.

Instead, help paint a clear picture of the gap that exists between a future of action and one of inaction — and use the difference to channel energy into action. Start by asking the person to imagine how he or she will feel if nothing changes.

In the case of the partner passed over for promotion, this was: “How will you feel in 90 days if you’ve brooded on this feedback without doing anything?”

“Terrible” was the reply.

“And how would it feel if you were able to act on it and move on?”

“Like a huge weight was lifted off,” he said. And in the that moment he felt the emotional gap between action and inaction and was ready to embrace positive steps forward.

Being passed over for a promotion and feeling betrayed by colleagues is a high-stakes example of negative emotions coming into play. But there are many less severe events that can be turned around by this leadership approach. These are the papercuts of life: a client meeting goes poorly, a project fails to receive budget approval, strategic decisions create work and frustration for everyone. In each case, there is benefit to naming the emotion (e.g. “I can tell you’re frustrated after that meeting”) connecting it to meaning (“This project really matters to you doesn’t it?”) and then channeling the released energy to action (“How would you feel if we could get this back on the docket for next quarter’s review? What do you think that would take?”).

Negative emotions are painful, but leaders can help turn them into something positive. As the ground-breaking Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli put it in his seminal work Psychosynthesis, “Trying to eliminate pain merely strengthens its hold. It is better to uncover its meaning, include it as an essential part of our purpose, and embrace its potential to serve us.”

Source: https://hbr.org/2020/11/turn-your-teams-frustration-into-motivation?ab=hero-subleft-1

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