by Tony Schwartz
It was a tense meeting. I'd gathered our whole team to talk about the fact that we were under very high demand, and people seemed to be fraying at the edges.
"Is anyone beside me feeling worried you just can't get it all done?" one person began. The floodgates opened. An outpouring of anxiety, distress and complaint followed — much of it aimed at the person in charge, who happened to be me.
My constant new enthusiasms and ideas, I was told, were interfering with completing the important tasks at hand. Also, I wasn't fully appreciating the work that people were doing because I was too quick to move on to the next exciting possibility.
My first instinct, not surprisingly, was to feel defensive. But I also subscribe to something we call the Golden Rule of Triggers: Whatever you feel compelled to do, don't. So instead I listened, and tried to take it all in.
Two solutions emerged from the conversation. One was to ruthlessly prioritize, which meant putting certain desirable projects on the back burner. The second, given our rapid growth, was an agreement to add several new people to our team.
Even so, at the end of an hour, I could feel the residual frustration and fatigue hanging around in the room. It seemed important to say something uplifting.
"Without discounting what's been shared here," I began, "I want to take a moment to frame it in a wider context. What people are feeling is probably an inevitable consequence of success. Let's not forget this is what we dreamed could happen. We're a small company with a chance to help some of the biggest organizations in the world transform the workplace. That's an amazing opportunity. We're proud of our mission, and passionate about it, and we're incredibly fortunate to be where we are.
I could see several nodding heads. "Why don't we go around the room one more time," one of my colleagues said, "and let everyone share something they're feeling good about at work?"
The impact was swift and dramatic. One person after another talked about the pride they felt working at the company, the freedom to do their best work, and the tightness of the bonds between us.
In a matter of moments, the tone of the meeting shifted from downbeat to inspiring. We ended with a feeling of shared exhilaration. As one team member described it the next day on our internal website, "It drove home the incredible power and contagiousness of positive emotions."
That was a powerful lesson, and I took away several others that apply to both individuals and to companies dealing with high demand.
1. Because human beings have a strong "negativity bias," we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones. It once clearly served our survival to be vigilant about what might go wrong and that instinct persists. Today, it may serve to buffer us from disappointment, but it also promotes disproportionate and destructive discontent. The simple question "What's going right?" provides ballast in tough times.
2. Negative emotions do feed on themselves, but the solution — especially for a leader — is not to squelch or downplay them. Doing so only makes the feelings go underground. Invariably, they show up later, more covertly, in the form of disengagement, simmering resentment, and passive aggressive behaviors that poison the workplace.
3. Since we all feel negative emotions at times, especially under high demand, it's important to provide forums at work in which they can be shared openly and without fear. When people sense their concerns are truly being heard, and that others are struggling with similar ones, they feel safer, and less alone — which frees up energy to add value.
4. Because emotions are so contagious, all leaders are effectively Chief Energy Officers. Part of that role is the capacity to acknowledge and contain people's negative feelings, so they don't become overwhelming. Moreover, because a leader's feelings are disproportionately contagious, modeling and communicating positive energy goes a long way.
5. The highest skill — whatever your role — is the willingness to embrace opposite feelings without choosing up sides. Acknowledging bad feelings is key to being able to address what's causing them. Recognizing they're only one part of the story frees us to notice what we feel good about and grateful for, which helps us to feel positive even in the face of ongoing challenges.
Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. Become a fan of The Energy Project on Facebook and connect with Tony at Twitter.com/TonySchwartz and Twitter.com/Energy_Project.
Re-posted from Harvard Business Review Daily Alert
– April 18, 2012