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Dealing with Negative Emotions in Teams

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When people work together in agile teams, emotions are bound to happen. Where positive emotions can give a boost to team working, negative emotions can have significant impact on collaboration in teams and affect their productivity.

Noel Radley, researcher on project management technology at Software Advice, published a report on how team mood can impact project management. She used an online survey to obtain data and interviewed several professors who have studied the impact of mood on productivity.

Some of the conclusions from her research are that negative emotions between team members happen often, team members also experience negative emotions from managers, negative emotions do have an impact on productivity and team members would like to address negative emotions themselves:

First, we asked our survey respondents how often they perceive a co-worker’s negative emotions. As it turns out, the majority of respondents (84 percent) had witnessed a co-worker exhibiting emotions such as anger or frustration with varying levels of frequency.

In our survey, we also wanted to see whether managers’ emotions were noted by team members. While reported less often than experiences with co-workers, a solid majority (73 percent) noted that they had witnessed a manager exhibiting negative emotions with varying degrees of frequency.

Most respondents reported that, when faced with the negative emotions of themselves or others in the workplace, both their mood and productivity would be negatively impacted (75 percent) to varying degrees. (…).

It turns out that the majority of respondents took personal responsibility: 44 percent selected “I am responsible” when asked who should address the negative emotions they experience in the workplace. (…) Fifteen percent said their manager should be responsible for addressing negative emotions, and 9 percent thought human resources should address the situation.

InfoQ interviewed Noel about why negative emotions happen in the workplace and how agile teams can deal with them.

InfoQ: What made you decide to investigate negative emotions in the workplace? What makes this important?

Noel: As project management researcher, I constantly learn current news and trends within the project management industry, especially in regards to technology. More and more companies have realized the importance in the crucial practice of project management, but many do not take into account how a team’s emotion could impact a project. Only recently have technology and project management processes begun to leverage newer information about emotion in the workplace. We surveyed 1,552 working adults in order to see how project success and performance might be impacted by negative team emotion. Moreover, we wanted to see whether team members saw their managers as the person who should be responsible for the emotional state of the group, or themselves.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate which kinds of negative emotions people in teams can have?

Noel: People can demonstrate a variety of negative emotions when in a team setting, from disappointment and frustration to more intense negative emotions, such as hostility and anger. Of course, these are natural feelings but what a team wants to avoid is being faced with “hurricane employees”; those who can make a project toxic with their negative emotions, which in turn impacts productivity and project success.

InfoQ: Do you know why do these negative emotions happen and what causes them to happen?

Noel: There can be several causes of negative emotions within teams. Emotions can arise out of project details, frustration over strict deadlines, even disappointment in project progress from inadequate process control to poor communication throughout planning and implementation. Project teams can also consist of various departments collaborating that might not be used to working together, where personalities and expectations can clash, resulting in negative moods towards the project, possibly impacting project success.

Many negative emotions go unresolved or addressed; many employees do not feel comfortable to disclose a team’s negative emotional contagion to their manager, and a manager may honestly not be aware of the issues that arise in team and how it affects productivity. Experts we interviewed said that managers tend to see managing team mood and emotions as outside their job description. That means in many cases, team members may continue to blame their manager for unresolved emotions, even as damaging emotions continue to impact the group.

InfoQ: In your opinion does working in agile teams result to more or less negative emotions? Why?

Noel: Given that the agile methodology gives continual feedback throughout a process and is interactive, I think it would open the opportunity to have more dialogue throughout a process to bring up negative emotions, but to, more importantly, resolve them. However, any project management methodology can be vulnerable to negative emotions if they are not addressed and resolved with the proper skills or tools.

Based on the results from your research I get the feeling that team members want to be able to deal with negative emotions. Do you agree?

Noel: Dealing is negative emotions should be a common practice in the workplace; forty-four percent of our survey respondents, when asked when it came to issues of responsibility for negative emotions, said they took personal responsibility. However, if a negative situation or problem is ignored or the responsibility is internalized personally, a team can be left vulnerable to emotions that directly impact productivity.

InfoQ: What kind of skills would team members need to effectively deal with emotions and how can they develop these skills?

Noel: A primary skill for team members, and even managers, is to learn more about emotional intelligence, and sharpen their skills at discerning emotions. This can positively improve their interactions with teammates. In addition, there is new technology emerging, such as mood tracking solutions. Implementing solutions such as these can help decipher team mood emotions at all stages of a project; this moves beyond personal responsibility and allows the team to depend on software to help discern whether any emotions might be threatening your project.

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