Tragedy and Comedy, a mosaic from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome, now in the Capitoline Museum, Rome (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #327

How Showing Emotions Builds Individual and Team Resilience

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Key Concept

Individuals who have a close relationship and teams that are built on trust are more likely to have the resilience to bounce back from setbacks. New research shows that ‘emotional carrying capacity’ — that is, the freedom to constructively express more emotions, both positive and negative — is the mechanism through which closeness and trust builds this resilience.

Idea Summary

Virtuous organizations are organizations that create an environment in which everyone works for the good of all: employees, customers and the community. There will be challenges and setbacks, however, and the ability of managers and employees to overcome these challenges in ways that help them learn and grow is essential to sustaining the virtuous organization.

Being virtuous helps. For example, people who can hope and forgive can overcome disappointments and failure better than people who hold grudges or live in fear. While virtuousness enables resilience, a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University, Boston University, Tel Aviv University and the University of Michigan sees the process in reverse: resilience enabling virtuousness. You’re more likely to be forgiving if you have the strength and fortitude to learn from the hurt caused by another.

Where does resilience come from? Previous research shows that interpersonal relationships hold the key: individuals who have close relationships with others, and teams whose members have trusting relationships with each other, are more likely to be resilient. In their research, the team identifies the link between relationships and resilience. The answer lies in the concept of ‘emotional carrying capacity’ or ECC. ECC is the ability and freedom to express one’s emotions — specifically the freedom to:

  • express more emotion overall
  • express both positive and negative emotions,
  • express that emotion constructively

The researchers conducted two studies, one focused on the relationships of individuals and the second focused on team relationships. The studies were based on surveys and questionnaires sent to staff employees of a large university (for the research on individuals) and to members of top management teams of 500 Israeli firms (for the research on teams).

The results of the studies clarify the important role that ECC plays in translating a close relationship among individuals and trust among team members into resilience to adversity and setbacks.

When two individuals have an open and supportive relationship, they are willing to express their emotions freely — both negative and positive — and in a constructive manner. At the team level, a foundation of trust is required for team members to be willing to show that same type of vulnerability to other members of the team. Team members must feel that all the members of the team want to understand and respond to each other’s needs and concerns.

Why is the expression of emotions so important to building resilience to adversity? The researchers offer a number of reasons:

  • Suppressed emotions undermine an effective response. Under stressful situations, two individuals or the members of a team must be able to discuss and work through differences. Especially with teams, resentment and other simmering negative emotions can bog down the effectiveness of the team just when more sustained commitment and effort from everyone is required.
  • ECC provides the information needed for resilience. Expressing emotions helps others understand how a person is truly reacting to an adverse situation, and enables them to respond in the most helpful and constructive manner.
  • Positive emotions broaden the response while negative emotions signal the need for a response. Both positive and negative emotions enhance the response to adversity. Positive emotions open up possibilities for responding to the situation. “Maybe we can try this.” Negative emotions can sound the alarm, which can be equally important to finding timely solutions. The researchers note that both positive and negative emotions balance the downsides of the other.
  • Constructive expression of emotions enables learning. Learning from adversity can only result from expressing emotions in a constructive manner. Incivility or overwhelming others with one’s emotions does not inspire the support and cooperation that people need to find solutions. When expressing emotions constructively and receiving the help they need, individuals will regain a sense of control over the situation, which in turn helps them be more resilient.

Business Application

Through their studies, the researchers show that expressing emotions is not just another tool in the resilient toolbox that individuals or teams can use to battle adversity. Instead, the constructive expression of positive and negative emotions is the key mechanism that explains why trust and close relationships lead to greater resilience.

Based on this research, business leaders and managers can take several steps to build up resilience in their organizations:

Encourage and enable face-to-face meetings. Organizations should encourage the expression of emotions by providing time and space for face-to-face meetings; emotions are not just communicated through words but also unconsciously expressed through facial expressions and postures. Face-to-face meetings are key to enabling people to fully express their emotions — and for others to understand them. Virtual meetings can be effective in some ways, but face-to-face meetings are required for individuals and team members to truly feel connected.

Model the sharing of emotions. Second, organizational and team leaders should take the lead on modeling the expression of emotions. Employees and direct reports should see them express both positive and negative emotions. The expression of negative emotions may go against the common wisdom of staying positive, but the researchers believe that through such expression, the leaders are validating the negative emotions of the others in the organization. The result, according to the researchers, is that leaders are creating a culture that allows vulnerability and open communication.

Provide training on the constructive expression of emotions. Encouraging more emotional expression can actually be more harmful if such expression is disrespectful and uncivil. Incivility in the workplace is at all-time high, reflecting the dangers of negative emotional expression. Individuals must be trained in more frequent and less intense expression of positive and negative emotions; this will lead to more openness, more understanding, and less build up of negative feelings.