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How to Keep Emotions from Wrecking Your Team

House of Cards credit:

How to Keep Emotions from Wrecking Your Team

A few months ago, my husband and I started a House of Cards marathon as we watched one or two episodes of the hit Netflix series each night until we had seen all the episodes. We may be the last people in America to watch this show, but late to the party or not, we found it riveting. With a new season starting, I reflect on a takeaway for leaders. 

As I watched previous-season episodes and consider the teams that are at odds in so many  ways, I am reminded of the role emotions play in any team’s success. From the first scene in each episode to the final credits, powerful emotions permeate the music, lighting, dialogue and action.

Conflicting and destructive emotions are the key to the entire series.

Emotions found in our real-life work settings may not be as obvious, but they are just as important in understanding what is happening and what will happen in the future.

This is not just conjecture. Convincing research tied to emotion suggests that “people in groups at work inevitably ‘catch’ feelings from one another, sharing everything from jealousy and envy to angst or euphoria.” (Goleman, Boyatzis & Mckee, 2002) Citing a study of seventy work teams across a variety of industries, they explained that in one study “members who sat in meetings together ended up sharing moods—either good or bad—within two hours.” They went on to describe a study of people engaged in simple conversation in which after fifteen minutes, “their physiological [emphasis added] profiles looked remarkably similar.” (p. 7)

That means that moods are physical as well as mental.  As individuals spend time with or converse with others, they transmit signals that can “alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function, and more-inside the body of [another].” (Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000, p. 83)

It is unclear how this happens, but even without conversation, people often mirror the emotional states of other people. Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson (1993) describe emotions as a package that includes conscious awareness, facial, vocal and postural expression, nervous systems, and behavior. Each part of the package affects the other and each affects the person observing or in contact with someone else.

This information is critical to leaders and team members who want to strengthen their teams and accomplish their goals. They must monitor, and in some cases adjust, the emotional climates of their groups and teams.

As I stated in a previous article, leaders can begin by recognizing their own emotions and choosing which emotions they want to convey. However, managing the emotional climate of the group can be even more challenging.

The following strategies can help leaders promote healthy and productive emotional interactions:

  1. Analyze the emotional climate of your group or team. Is it healthy and productive? If not, what issues exist in the group?
  2. Build trust and collaboration. Teams can work together productively only when trust exists.
  3. Notice your own emotions to determine if they originate with you or if they mirror the emotions of someone else.
  4. Notice emotional cues coming from others in the group….facial expressions, physical presence, tone of voice, etc. What do those emotional cues say about the situation?
  5. Either publicly or privately, discuss what you observe. Give people the opportunity to discuss underlying issues.
  6. Express expectations for behavior. Hold everyone accountable for maintaining or improving the emotional climate of the group.
  7. Celebrate and enjoy time together. Provide time to recognize each person at different times and allow team members to know and appreciate how everyone contributes to the success of the team.

In addition to research pointing to how we share emotions, strong evidence suggests that teams that are free of emotional entanglements and divisive discussions function much more productively. It may be too late for President Garrett Walker to change the emotional climate in House of Cards, but it is not too late for your team.

What are your solutions for improving the emotional climate in your groups or teams? 

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 If you want to learn more about emotions and emotional intelligence, check out our Emotional Intelligence Portal with articles and links to an unparalleled collection of information and resources about this important topic. 


Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., and McKee, A. (2002) Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.L., & Rapson, R.L. (1993). Emotional Contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 2, 96-99.  acccessed July 21, 2014.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2001). A general theory of love. New York: Vintage Books.

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Comments (2)

  1. Doris Reeves-Lipscomb

    You had me on the opening line because my husband and I recently became addicted to House of Cards, too. (So we’re right with you on being latecomers to this show.) It is a chance for us to be voyeurs without having to manage or reckon with the consequences.

    You also had me with “leaders can begin by recognizing their own emotions and choosing which emotions they want to convey.” NTL used to have a workshop for OD consultants to build self-awareness in working with clients. It was intended to help us recognize the emotions churning within us and manage them constructively in working with the client, which speaks to #3-#6. The workshop helped me stay authentic in a good way with the client and they with me.

    It is normal for us all to have emotions, e.g., disgust, fear, confusion, weariness; it is how we handle them with others that can build and bring a group closer and achieve higher functioning…

    “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space” is what it says on a card on my desk. It’s so true.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Doris, Thanks for your comments. In regard to the series, like the idea that we are voyeurs without having to reckon with the consequences. I wondered why I found this so entertaining. That may explain it. I like to believe I could never be that evil.
      I think the comment on your desk captures the nucleus of emotional intelligence. Taking responsibility for your own energy and how it affects others may be the most important element of emotional intelligence.

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