Leveraging Positive Emotions to Enhance Teamwork

Contributor: Janet Ladd, PCC, SPHRi
To learn more about Janet, click here.


image014.jpgThink of the best teams of which you’ve been a part – those on which you, personally, were highly motivated, felt a strong sense of positive connection, and generally looked forward to coming to work each day.  You had fun collaborating with your colleagues, weren’t afraid to admit mistakes or ask for help, and, together, were able to produce great work.   

When this is posed to teams I coach or students I teach, I often hear things like:  there was trust; we liked each other; we had a common vision and goals; we listened to each other; we shared ideas; there was mutual respect, even when we disagreed; we cared about each other; we had each other’s backs; we took time to communicate; and we brought in food to staff meetings.  (Ahhh, the power of food!) 

In my work, I leverage research, in particular from the areas of neuroscience and positive psychology, to support leaders and help teams develop, achieve great outcomes, and even have fun.  How wonderful that the “at our best” experiences are consistent with – both support and are supported by – the research.  Before we explore ideas as to how to enhance positive affect in the workplace, it’s helpful to understand why bringing out the best in teams is increasingly important. 

The Need for Improved Teamwork
In an article entitled, Strategy in the Age of Superabundant Capital, [March-April, 2017, issue of Harvard Business Journal] the authors indicate, “The skillful allocation of financial capital is no longer a source of sustained competitive advantage.  More important is a workforce that can generate good ideas and translate them into successful new products, services, and businesses.”  The researchers further state that in today’s economy, human capital (think time, talent, creativity, and energy), is where the power lies.   

This is consistent with research from Deloitte [2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends] that states the “organization of the future is a network of teams.” Leading companies are shifting their organizational structure, flattening traditional hierarchies, breaking down silos, and building systems that cross roles to leverage agile groups of individuals.

These findings are especially relevant in healthcare, where increasing co-morbidities and complexity of specialization requires strong teamwork across disciplines in order to achieve reliable, safe, and patient-centered care.   

So, what does all this have to do with emotions? 
Well, if you consider the research surrounding human performance it’s everything.  Although I often hear executives say they wish people would leave their emotions at the door as they come to work each day, we know our human resources are just that – human.  We bring all of ourselves to work whether we like it or not.  This includes our natural temperaments (which comes from our biology, genes, and the interplay of neurochemicals our bodies generate throughout the day) as well as the parts of our personality that have developed through our experiences (family, culture, technology, education, work environments, etc.).  

Research has shown employees’ moods, emotions, and overall dispositions impact the quality of:  employee attention and perception, critical thinking, decision-making, creativity, ability to learn, memory, willingness and ability to collaborate, as well as their well-being and resilience.  Phew, that’s quite a list!  Most leaders would agree these elements are critical to workplace satisfaction and performance.

Influencing Positivity using the SCARF Framework
Luckily, there are predictable triggers that influence threat (“negative” emotional) vs. reward (“positive” emotional) states.  Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, developed the SCARF model, a brain-based framework to understand key drivers of human social behavior in our increasingly interconnected workplace.  By understanding these drivers, leaders and teams can improve their capacity to understand and influence themselves and the work environment.  Work relationships and practices can be designed more intentionally to promote fewer “threat” and more “reward” experiences.

Below are ideas that have surfaced in my work with teams as elevating positive experiences and promoting healthier and more productive work environments.  We’ll look at these practices through the lens of Rock’s SCARF framework.

  • Status. Status relates to an individual’s sense of self-worth and is one of the key drivers of human behavior.  Status can be undermined in the work environment, especially where significant hierarchies and disparities across roles are present.  Breaking down silos by focusing on common goals and emphasizing the importance of teamwork to influence shared outcomes can minimize threats to one’s personal status.  Creating a clear line of sight between roles and overall/team success promotes a strong sense of team identity and commitment.  

    One of the most admired surgeons I know promoted loyalty and accountability among his surgical team and administrative staff by telling his colleagues daily that all roles in the practice group were equally valuable and that, without coordinated efforts across roles, none of them would be successful.  Stories of success highlighted the contributions of team members, in and outside of the operating room.
  • Certainty. As humans, we crave certainty.  Our brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly striving to predict the near future.  Work environments that are perceived to be unfamiliar and unsafe drain resources (emotional, mental, and physical) and hinder employees’ abilities to collaborate and make effective decisions.  

    One nurse manager whose unit was anticipating the implementation of a new electronic health record system promoted learning and acceptance by: communicating the reasons behind the change, including the benefits the new system would provide over time;  clarifying expectations and timelines associated with the implementation effort; providing ample opportunities for training; deployment of “super users” (whose sole job for a period of weeks was to support learning, comfort, and appropriate system usage on a real-time basis); and providing opportunities during huddles and staff meetings for individuals to share their experiences. Individuals reported a shift from apprehension to comfort (and, even excitement) once they knew what was expected of them and felt the support of not only their leader but colleagues, as well. 

  • Autonomy. A perceived sense of choice and control over one’s experiences and environment activates the reward circuitry of the brain.  In healthcare, work environments with higher levels of autonomy and control over unit practices is associated with increased performance, improved patient outcomes, and lower mortality rates. [Institute of Medicine, 2004.]  Leaders can influence autonomy by setting an expectation of coordinated yet independent action and supporting decision-making within identified scope of practice. 

    For example, while working with a multidisciplinary team in an increasingly busy ICU, attending physicians, fellows, nurse practitioners, and nurses discussed key demands facing their unit and outlined expectations and specific protocols, including boundaries, for how care would be provided and decisions would be made across roles. These discussions allowed individuals to work to fuller levels of their potential (a source of frustration, especially in the nurse practitioner group), and determine how to handle situations that were creating frustration (e.g., verbal physician orders, lack of consistency in care plans, etc.).   Formal and informal learning opportunities across disciplines were also instituted, which increased autonomy and confidence in roles.

  • Relatedness. Humans are social beings and were designed to rely on others for not only social needs but survival.  A sense of belonging is a driver of many types of teams, including silos.  To promote a positive sense of relatedness and cohesion among team members, leaders should be intentional in defining and nurturing cultures – the explicit values, principles, attitudes, and behaviors – that will drive satisfaction and success.  Leaders can promote a sense of belonging by introducing new team members, establishing formal buddy systems, and providing opportunities to work in small groups.  When individuals have a chance to connect (formally and informally), camaraderie, rapport, trust, and accountability are strengthened.

    A long-term care facility that increased its staff size by almost 50% through the addition of a new wing to its facility helped increase a sense of team-belonging by hosting a number of on- and off-site opportunities for existing and new colleagues to get to know one another.  Staff created a bulletin board with names, photos, and “fun facts” for each team member.  Time was devoted in staff meetings and huddles to recognize contributions, appreciate others’ strengths, offer support, and share experiences.  

  • Fairness. The last element in the SCARF model involves the perception of fair exchanges.  When we perceive something to be unfair, our brain automatically reacts in a defensive manner.  Further, we don’t empathize with people whom we perceive to be unfair and may act in destructive ways to “get even.” 

    I recently had a conversation with an Assistant Director of Nursing who described the differences in pay levels and benefits for individuals working in an outpatient clinic of a teaching hospital and biomedical research facility.  Some individuals were university-based and others were employees of the hospital system.  She described how disgruntled workers who perceived their pay and benefits to be disproportionate compared to their colleagues resulted in call-outs as well as lack of teamwork, communication, and support across functions.  

In addition to ensuring equity in rules, one of the easiest ways to promote positive feelings around fairness is to be open and transparent in communications.  People are less likely to experience dissatisfaction if they are included in discussions and contribute to and understand workplace decisions.  

You have more influence than you may realize over your own and others’ well-being, motivation, and performance.  In these dynamic and often trying times, the SCARF model provides a simple framework that can bring greater understanding of what supports positive affect in the workplace and what does not.  Leveraging this insight can help promote stronger teamwork, a competitive advantage that’s just waiting to be tapped.


Contact Janet at:
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