Decode Your Colleagues’ Emotional Clues

They're the key to connection and success at work.

Posted Oct 30, 2019

Leading a team is often harder than it needs to be. People can be jumpy; they appear unduly insecure. Sensitivities flare, and you get caught by surprise. Your colleagues seem unpredictable. But you can solve the mystery of their behavior if you pay attention to the emotional clues your co-workers reveal daily. 

Melanie Katzman, Ph.D. / McGraw Hill / Used with Permission
Source: Melanie Katzman, Ph.D. / McGraw Hill / Used with Permission

In over three decades of studying group dynamics, I’ve learned that sticking with emotions you can readily see and label is comfortable. But it’s not necessarily effective: in most offices, employees are reticent. They often don’t articulate what’s motivating them, complicating their production, or scaring them silly.

There’s an alternative route to building strong team dynamics that’s faster – though it’s daunting to enter. You must go deep through confusing muck, shift gears, and invest in the journey. But once you access it, the traffic clears. This is the emotional speedway.

Decoding and responding to your colleagues’ emotions effectively is a challenge – but an achievable one. The first step is to assess your own reactions.  Hit the pause button, and take a moment to tap into your feelings if you’re confronted with a new opportunity, an intractable conflict, or an unfamiliar collaborator. What negative outcomes do you fear? See if you can venture below your work veneer and find some words to express what’s bubbling up. Remember, our gut is filled with neuroreceptors. At times our brain freezes, but our body is busy metabolizing feelings.

Now that you’ve surfaced your reactions, keep going. Scan your environment. Who else might be sharing the same emotions, either positive or negative? Before you approach a colleague, consider your impact. Caught in a conflict? Slow down long enough to recognize how you and your current antagonist may be experiencing the same thing.

Sure, you may feel vulnerable, and that’s the point: start a conversation with your coworker, not about what has to get done but how the work is impacting each of you. Leave lots of room for them to respond and share their experience. If they ask why you are inquiring now, tell the truth. Your emotional radar was activated, and you thought it might be signaling some discomfort (or happy anticipation) on their part. By connecting in this way, as fellow humans, you are giving permission for a peer, direct report, or partner to transition with you to the superhighway.

If you feel angry, perhaps your colleague is also seeing red. They appear calm but reluctant to give you the information you need in a timely manner. You know they have access to data you need, and their slow response time is provoking you. But if you want to continue this necessary partnership, rather than approaching your co-worker with a litany of missed deadlines and a demand that they shape up, try asking about their experience. The conversation may release some of the pain on both sides – producing a new level of understanding while helping you enhance your interpersonal savvy.

Taking the time to explore unspoken emotions is a valuable investment in the colleagues that support you. You may be certain your assistant feels respected, but if you feel undermined by your direct reports, drop your defensiveness. See if you can uncover ways that you may be making people feel small. Are you sure others feel respected by you? Ask them.

When the tension is thick and there have been changes in your group, be the first to take a breath and stop to ask, “How are you doing?” Do an emotional body scan. What’s giving you the zip in your step? Why is this project such a drag? See if you can articulate the experience and share it with the colleague in the cubicle next to you. Feeling “off” before a big event? Don’t be afraid to open the meeting expressing your internal turmoil.

I like starting meetings with a check-in. Asking how participants are feeling in a workshop or strategy meeting may seem counter to many corporate cultures. Yet it truly warms the room.

Taking a break from words to pay attention to mood (yours and theirs) marks the difference between average and superior performers. Traveling together on the emotional speedway will do more than calm people’s nerves. You’ll win coworkers’ minds—and clear yours.