Managing Team Emotions During a Crisis

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Apr 28, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As a part of the research team at SAP SuccessFactors, I was already well accustomed to working on an entirely remote team by the time of the COVID-19 crisis. Despite there being absolutely no change to my work processes, I quickly began to notice issues with my emotional processes. I was having more trouble sleeping, and I found myself getting distracted much more easily than normal.

Now, imagine the millions of employees who are currently faced with working on a remote team for the first time, with work arrangements that were scrambled together nearly overnight, with their kids home from school, and the stress of worrying about friends and family. Maintaining productivity can be a major struggle. On the bright side, your team members are there to support you during this difficult time…right?

The short answer to this question is: maybe. The reality is that team emotions are much more complicated than individual employee emotions. If not properly managed, team interactions can make matters worse.

Watch out for emotional contagion

Emotions can be highly contagious in group settings. If one team member is feeling sad, stressed, or burnt out, it is likely that other members of the team will start to feel the same way. The result is a spiral that not only hinders productivity but can be disruptive to employees’ mental health as well.

Fortunately, emotional contagion works in both directions. A strong, positive attitude among a team member or a manager can spread to others, resulting in decreased levels of conflict and an increase in both cooperation and overall team performance.

Be sensitive about emotional labor

Being ultra-positive can rub off on other team members and bring the whole group up, great! But we must also understand that putting on a happy face doesn’t always reflect one’s true feelings. Known as “surface acting,” this can also be damaging. Too much surface acting can lead to impaired wellbeing, more negative job attitudes, and poor work performance. Additionally, ignoring the real-life stress that everyone on the team is facing can feel dismissive and insulting.

At the start of team meetings, set aside five minutes to check up on how everyone is doing. Acknowledge the genuine stress that everyone is going through, but do not dwell on it for an extended period of time. Shift the topic towards the task at hand with a positive attitude in order to encourage positive emotional contagion without risking excess emotional labor.

Take extra care in managing team conflict

Contrary to what some may believe, conflict is healthy and even necessary for effective team functioning. If a team has no conflict, then this may actually be a symptom of “groupthink,” where team members are prioritizing consensus over the quality of output or decisions. Effective group conflict can lead to higher levels of innovation and performance. However, the catch is that conflict only has a positive impact on team functioning when emotions stay out of the picture. Given the increased stress team members are currently under – combined with the possibility of having to communicate exclusively through a virtual environment for the first time – it is easy for emotions to find their way into team conflict. Emotion-fueled conflict can then lead to lower group cohesion and decreased team performance.

Managers should be increasingly aware of any conflict which occurs on their teams during this time. Try to identify where conflict is productive and objective versus where it is emotional and reactive. De-escalate the situation as soon as possible by refocusing the team on the task at hand and re-emphasizing their shared goals.

In a world where every employee across the globe is simultaneously experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress and change, we need to accept and understand the nature of group emotions. If not managed correctly (or unmanaged altogether), emotional stress can make teamwork create even more friction and frustration. However, if managed correctly, teams can provide critical social support in a time when it needed most.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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