Look for Changes in Behavior

Kim needed to solve a difficult problem for her customer, and she knew she couldn’t do it alone. But every time she turned to her co-workers for help, she heard things like, “It’s is not my issue” or “I’m not responsible for this,” leaving her feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

Her boss noticed that Kim became distant, avoidant, and disengaged. Instead of confronting her, he said, “Kim, I sense something has been very difficult for you. I want you to know that you can always come to me with any issues. You’re very important to the team and to me. It never bothers me to talk with you.”

When Kim heard these words of reassurance, she felt relieved, relaxed, and safe to share. She confided in her boss about the problem she was facing, and together they resolved the issue.

In the article, Emotions in the Workplace, Ashkanasy and Dorris found that when leaders are attuned to their subordinates’ emotions, they are much more successful in helping their employees be productive. [1]

Emotions signal a change in our environment. When we experience negative emotions, we disconnect, disengage, become angry, aggressive, or withdrawn. It becomes difficult for us to communicate and do our job successfully.

The authors outline three important levels when addressing emotions in the workplace:

Level 1: Within-Person. Emotions have clear physical expressions, so paying attention to the facial expressions, body postures, head, and eye movements can provide cues that something is happening within an individual. In our example, Kim felt overwhelmed inside, but her behavior manifested in withdrawing and avoidance. Such behaviors may send incorrect cues to others and maybe misinterpret as Kim does not care about the project or does not like her team members. These cues can also trigger negative emotions in others, triggering a negative cycle of conflict. When we recognize and pay attention to how emotions impact bodily expressions, we can properly interpret the messages being sent and help to regulate them.

Level 2: Between-Persons. Emotional messages impact our relationships and interactions, which have a direct correlation to our success. The more secure the connection, the more open and collaborative we become, and the faster we can resolve issues. The study shows that when bosses deeply connect with subordinates on an emotional level, they build a secure bond, creating a positive organizational climate where employees feel heard, understood, and valued.

Level 3: Interpersonal-Emotions. When emotions are expressed, it brings people closer together. Ekman showed that expressing emotions is a basic human need.[2] A boss who understands emotional language will be able to express their emotions and can create space for others to do the same. This makes them more effective in managing team relationships and modulating responses that preserve the emotional balance of the team.  For example, specifically naming emotions and acknowledging them helps slow the emotional rollercoaster allowing the brain to stay calm. We can avoid the fight-or-flight response, stay cognitively aware, and emotionally connected.

Emotions are contagious. Knowing how to regulate emotional spirals can guide complex interactions and stop the spread of negative emotions across the organization. George found that emotional regulation preserves enthusiasm and strong team harmony.[3] Indeed, the data suggests that the key skill of a transformational leader lies in their ability to manage and process team members’ emotions.

Do encourage employees to share their emotions. Show them that you are open to creating a safe space. Share your emotions with them to create a bond. Say phrases like, “I hear you,” “That makes sense,” and “You are so courageous to share your emotions.”

Don’t interpret behavioral changes without seeking further understanding. Remember, in Kim’s example, a person may appear to be distant or avoidant, but inside they feel alone and helpless. Remind yourself that people who work together want to be connected and when they display a change in behavior, that means they are stuck and don’t know how to reconnect.

By being aware of the changes in behaviors, we can provide reassurance and create space for employees to share their emotions, which will provide an opportunity for us to repair, reengage, and reconnect with our employees, and reignite their motivation for performance. 

With gratitude and care,
Lola and EmC Team


[1] Ashkanasy, N. M., & Dorris, A. D. (2017). “Emotions in the Workplace,” Annual Review

[2] Ekman P. 1972. Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1971, Vol. 19, ed. J Cole, pp. 207–82. Lincoln, NE: Univ. Neb. Press

[3] George JM. 2000. Emotions and leadership: the role of emotional intelligence. Hum. Rel. 53:1027–55

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