Imagine you are the CEO of a large cooperation. You have a new regional manager who has drawn a lot of criticism from their employees since getting the position a few months ago, and you are asked to travel to the region to address the manager’s behavior and reduce the employees’ outrage. Consider two scenarios. In the first, individual employees have been feeling a lot of anger toward the new manager, but have not yet shared these feelings with each other. In the second, employees have already shared their feelings with each other and are expressing their frustration as a group.
Which situation is likely harder to manage? As you might guess, the second case is much more complicated. While it’s not uncommon for leaders to find themselves facing employees’ strong emotions — positive or negative — the risks can be more pronounced in groups versus individuals. Over the past few years, researchers who study emotions, myself included, have started to examine the unique features of this type of emotion, a phenomenon called collective emotion. Our findings suggest that the intensity of collective emotions tends to be much stronger — and last much longer — than that of isolated individuals.
This is for a couple of reasons. First, emotions help people communicate their thoughts and feelings to others, and when people get together, they tend to express stronger emotions than they would if ruminating on the issue alone. This is especially true in cases where there is an increasing sense that the emotion is not a feeling that a single individual feels, but rather something that the group feels as a unit. Second, strong emotions are contagious, and this contagion can lead people who were not initially impacted by a situation or event to coalesce around a given emotion.
When thinking of a collective’s emotions, leaders must consider how interactions between individuals impact the overall emotion of the group. Then, they must understand how to tap into the strong emotions employees are feeling and help manage them. The key to this is understanding how emotion regulation works at the collective level. It is important to note that emotions are natural, and in many cases can be helpful to the group. Even emotions that seem to be undesirable, such as anger and anxiety, can help group members air out negative experiences, become more engaged, or transition toward better solutions. However, in some cases negative emotions can be destructive and lead to undesired behaviors. In these cases finding ways to regulate the collective emotions is crucial.
How to Regulate Collective Emotions
Emotion regulation involves changing the trajectory of an emotional response, and it’s something we do all the time. We can both downregulate emotions (for example, by controlling our anger toward an unpleasant boss) or upregulate our emotions (for example, by increasing our excitement for a proposed idea). But while it is common to think of emotion regulation as occurring merely at the initial response to the incident or event — say, by quickly bottling up emotions inside and not expressing them or by faking a smile — emotions actually unfold in a process that involves multiple systems, including attention, cognition, and response. And we can regulate our emotions with each of these systems.
The process model of emotion regulation, which was developed by psychologist James Gross from Stanford, can help leaders understand how these systems work. The idea behind this framework is that emotion and its regulation unfold over time and can be divided into four steps: a specific situation (e.g., a manager behaving aggressively), attention to the situation (an employee noticing the behavior), appraisal of the situation (the employee realizing that the behavior is offensive), and a response (the employee’s actual expression of anger).
This model is a perfect framework for understanding how individuals regulate their emotions, and it has been used to examine how employees’ and managers’ emotion regulation can increase performance and satisfaction with work. Here we use the process model to examine how a leader can execute emotion regulation when attempting to manage a group: situation modification, shifting attention or creating distraction, reappraisal, and response modulation.
The first set of emotion-regulation strategies at a leader’s disposal involves addressing the emotion-eliciting situation itself. Of course, the most obvious solution is to try to avoid the situation in the first place. But in many cases, it is inevitable or already unfolding, so a leader’s goal is to find ways to modify the situation to elicit the desired emotion.
One well-documented situation-modification strategy that can impact collective emotion is rituals. Groups develop rituals — predefined sequences of action characterized by rigidity, formality, and repetition — in order to both increase and decrease certain emotions. Sports teams develop pre-game rituals to reduce anxiety and intimidate the opponent. Organizations with high-stress jobs like investment companies and law firms often develop end-of-the-week rituals to help their employees decompress. Rituals were even recognized by McKinsey as a way to help employees when they returned to in-person work during the re-entry phase of Covid-19.
So, if leaders can recognize a certain emotional challenge ahead of time, they can think about developing rituals with their team that can modify the situation and change the collective emotions that may occur.
Shifting attention or creating distraction.
The second family of emotion-regulation strategies involves changing emotions by modifying where people’s emotional attention is directed.
Leaders often use distraction to change collective emotion. In a classic strategy, leaders focus their group’s attention on a specific rival in order to increase a sense of threat, urgency, and sometimes outrage. But distraction can also be used to reduce certain emotions. For example, leaders may shift their employees’ attention away from a rival in order to regulate stress or mitigate anxiety.
A great example is Steve Jobs’ attempt to help Apple employees distract themselves from their rivalry with Microsoft. When Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, Apple employees were under a lot of stress due to competition from Microsoft, and specifically the success of Microsoft Office. According to Jobs, employees’ focus on Microsoft and feelings of jealousy hindered the company’s progress. In a 2007 interview at the D5 conference, Jobs recalled:
[T]here were too many people at Apple and in the Apple ecosystem playing the game of, for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. And it was clear that you didn’t have to play that game because Apple wasn’t going to beat Microsoft. Apple didn’t have to beat Microsoft. Apple had to remember who Apple was because they’d forgotten who Apple was. So to me, it was pretty essential to break that paradigm.
Jobs reached out to Bill Gates and the two tried to patch things up. The two company leaders not only made peace, but later also signed a deal that began to repair the relationship between the two rivals. The deal included making IE the default browser on Macs and an agreement that Microsoft would begin to develop Office for Mac. This gave a signal to the team to not focus as much on the competition, and this shift in attention helped Apple employees concentrate on the company’s own goals as opposed to what Microsoft was doing.
The third family of emotion-regulation strategies is called reappraisal, which involves rethinking or reinterpreting a situation in a way that impacts the subsequent emotional response.
A great example of reappraisal at the group level can be seen in internet forums dedicated to stock discussions. Often, after a disappointing earnings report by a specific company, its stock crashes, leading to a strong sense of anxiety in the investor community on the forum. But the investors who hold the stock are typically motivated to calm the community by offering various interpretations of the situation in an attempt to regulate collective emotions. For example, one user might suggest that the disappointing report is the result of a potentially profitable investment that will later yield more profits. That suggestion can then gain traction and be echoed by others on the forum. As time goes by, more users adopt this interpretation, which contributes to a strong reduction in the anxiety expressed within the forum.
Another example comes from the case of Tay, a Twitter bot developed by Microsoft engineers in March 2016. Introduced on social media as “The AI with zero chill,” the aim was to showcase a promising new AI tool using the most sophisticated technology. Within hours of its activation, however, Tay turned into a racist, misogynistic, and highly sexual entity, echoing interactions with users who intentionally attempted to derail its behavior. Within 16 hours of its release, and after Tay had tweeted more than 96,000 times, Microsoft had to suspend its activity.
In expressing his views on Tay and taking accountability, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “Tay has had a great influence on how [Microsoft is] approaching AI.” Notice the sophisticated reappraisal. Instead of talking about the failure, Tay is framed as a learning experience and a transformative lesson. Nadella used a similar reappraisal strategy with employees. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2017, Nadella said that “The first way we dealt with this was by making sure that the team didn’t feel bad for actually taking the risk…You’ve got to make sure that if you make mistakes, you learn from them.” Again, Nadella is reframing the situation as an important learning experience. These subtle but effective reappraisal techniques can change minds and reduce strong emotions.
The last family of emotion-regulation strategies is called response modulation. This involves controlling the outward expression of one’s own emotional experience to impact others’ emotions.
Consider one of the most famous experiments in developmental psychology, the visual cliff. In this experiment, a child is asked to cross what seems like a cliff by crawling on a perfectly safe but scary glass floor. The child’s caretaker is waiting on the other side. Research suggests that the facial expression of the caretaker plays a tremendous role in helping the child navigate this task and overcome their fear and uncertainty.
While managers are not caretakers and employees are not babies, even adults have the inherent tendency to look for the emotions of others as a signal to what we should feel. A leader who is maintaining positive emotions in response to a challenging situation can positively influence the group’s collective emotion, as long as these emotions are seen as genuine. For example, Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft and the owner of the LA Clippers, is famous for his strong expressions of enthusiasm and passion that are known to spread within the organizations he manages. On the other hand, leader anxiety or anger can dramatically impact the emotions of their group.
It is important to note, however, that suppressing one’s expressions using response modulation may not be a very good way to regulate a group of people for long periods of time. Previous research suggests that bottling emotions inside does not turn them down; on the contrary, people who suppress their expressions often feel stronger emotions. Therefore, a leader who suppresses their emotions to try to influence their team is likely to express those emotions in other ways through their behavior, tone, or reaction to others — and people are very good at detecting emotions, even when they are well hidden. Not expressing emotions may work for a little while, but is not likely to be a good long-term solution.
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Which strategy is the best for leaders trying to better regulate the collective emotions of their team? This answer depends on the situation and the group, as each strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages. Regulating fear by maintaining composure can help in the short term, but will eventually break when the leader reveals their emotions or when people stop believing that the emotions are genuine. A successful reappraisal can become part of the organizational narrative and change how people remember the situation, but employees may generate and prefer a more negative framing that would eventually increase their emotions. For example, a leader can frame a company setback as a necessary step for a healthy growth, but employees may not be convinced and could converge on a narrative that the company is actually collapsing. Finding a reappraisal that works and that people could believe in is key to collective emotion regulation.
Sometimes, the best solution is to use multiple strategies. For example, the CEO who was sent to reduce the employee outrage may do a few things at the same time. They can point out some of benefits of the situation, like that it prompted them to visit the region and hear directly from the employees. They can suggest an alternative narrative if it’s appropriate and true, such as explaining that the regional manager is just learning the ropes. They may point employees’ attention to some other positive aspect of the company, or devise a process for employees to express their frustration on a regular basis to air out some of the emotions.
Ultimately, leaders need to have the intelligence to understand their team’s emotional state — and to identify the unique features of a situation in order to choose the right strategy for impacting the group’s collective emotion.
About the Author:
Amit Goldenberg is an assistant professor in the Negotiation Organizations & Markets unit at Harvard Business School. Dr. Goldenberg’s research focuses on emotions, groups, and technology.