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How to Help Your Team Manage Its States

In the previous blog post, you looked at how teams are organic systems, and by definition, unstable.

The lack of stability shows up as a result of the shifting states of each team member. In return, that obviously has repercussions on the state of the whole team.

What Do States Mean?

States are temporary conditions that constantly transition into new ones. You are tired, refreshed, lethargic, or energetic. These are all different forms of physical states. You are also happy, sad, exuberant, or angry. These are emotional states. The two play an ongoing interdependent dance with each other. For instance, when you have slept well, you might feel happier than when you just had two hours of restless sleep on a plane.

The state that you are in at any given time influences your performance quite dramatically. Just think of yourself and what a difference it makes to your own performance when you are feeling energetic and happy—or the opposite.

But it is more complex than that. Humans are a social species that influence one another. There have been all sorts of experiments to prove this. You take a deeply depressed person and ask them to sit in a train compartment with 6–8 other people for 15–20 minutes. All of them just sit together, not saying a word. Then, you interview the other passengers about how they feel after the experiment and you can probably register a clear dominance of a more negative, pessimistic state in everyone in that compartment. Alternatively, you ask a guy who just won the lottery, became a father for the first time, or experienced some other major happy event to also make a journey in a train compartment with another set of people for a certain amount of time. Again, all of them just sit there, not saying a word. When you interview the other passengers, it's more likely that you'll find a significant level of optimism and positivity in the whole group.

The rule of thumb here is that the person in the group with the strongest emotion tends to affect the rest of the group, whether positively or negatively.

Think about that the next time you turn up for work in a bad mood, with the attitude that it only concerns yourself and that others should just get on with their work. You have just lowered the productivity level in your team by around 10–50%, depending on how foul your mood happens to be.

The first lesson here is that you need to manage your states. That is a whole subject in itself. I will be dedicating a full training module to that in the Team Leader’s Toolbox course.

For now, let’s just assume that you already understand that. Let's say that you are fully aware of how to manage your states and what the consequences are for your surroundings when you don’t.

Next, we need to know that apart from your states, you can also affect your team members' states, both positively and negatively.

What Causes You to Shift or Change Your State?

At the basic level, it's about stimulus and response. Something happens and you react—as per reflex—or respond. When you respond, there is the notion that you actually make a conscious choice. People who are good at managing their states respond.

Many of your team members might just react. Their reactions follow a simple pattern.

When something happens that is within the range of what they expected, there is no reaction. Your team members' states remain unchanged. When something happens that is better than they had expected, they have a positive reaction and that shifts their emotional state to a more optimistic mood. Of course, that has repercussions on their physical energy levels as well. But if something happens that is worse than they expected, they will react negatively and experience a shift in their states towards something that is more negative, with a corresponding drop in physical energy levels as well.

This pattern has an added complication. The brain is not that good at differentiating between what is actually going on and what you think is going on, or even what will go on in the future. When you feel that something will be great—or end terribly—you react accordingly, even if it hasn't yet occurred.

When You Shift Your Focus, You Shift Your State

That is why paying attention to what you focus on is another important part of managing your states. When you focus on what you want, what you would like to create, you gain positive thoughts and emotions. When you focus on what you don’t want or, what you would like to avoid, you have negative thoughts and emotions.

In the same but slightly different category is the sensation of having a lack of control. Most people go into seriously negative states when they feel that they have no control over what is currently happening or about to happen. People experience this in different degrees. Some handle a lack of control better than others. But take away all control from someone, and you basically have a torture situation.

A good dentist understands this and explains carefully what they are going to do next, among others. In that way, they are actively managing your experience and trying to make you avoid going into unnecessarily negative states since it's bad for business, you won’t come back, and you'll tell your friends unpleasant things about the experience.

Also in this category is any notion of fear. You do not want any of your team members to experience any form of fear because it obviously triggers unhelpful mental and physical states. This sounds so obvious. But think of your own career. How many times a week have you had that feeling of fear in your belly? How often was it caused by someone in a senior position, probably due to their behavior or words? Causing any form of anxiety in your team is absolutely unhelpful.

In summary, you can help your team members manage their states by:

  • Skillfully managing your states;
  • Avoiding unpleasant surprises whenever you can—be clear about what is going to happen and what your expectations are;
  • Being clear about what needs to be done, but leaving the control of how to do it up to them; and
  • Helping them stay focused on what you are trying to create or achieve as a team, as opposed to focusing on what is not working or what needs to be avoided.

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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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