It’s no secret that leaders are supposed to have vision. When asked to think of a great leader, most of us picture famous faces like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos—people with ambitious ideas who seem to perfectly embody that “visionary” moniker.
But what’s really remarkable about these leaders isn’t necessarily the vision they had. Rather, it’s their ability to successfully execute that vision—to bring it to life by leveraging the skills and talents of a team of individuals.
Too many leaders focus the majority of their time and energy on creating their grand vision, only to drop the ball where it counts. Interestingly, the primary cause for failure isn’t lack of technical capability, poor project management or any other procedural breakdown.
The reason most big ideas fail in execution is due to simple human emotion.
The Hidden Power of Emotion
For most leaders, discussing emotions in the workplace is still considered a taboo topic. After all, this is business, where logic and reasoned arguments prevail. If an idea is strong and a strategy solid, there’s no reason emotions should stand in the way.
The problem? Business is made up of humans, and humans are emotional creatures. Leaders can’t afford to ignore the emotional dynamics inherent in the execution of a grand vision. In fact, those who are sensitive to these emotional undercurrents and respond effectively to them can actually leverage emotions to propel execution forward. According to Quy Huy, Associate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD, executives who do this increase the odds of successful strategy execution between 20 to 30 percent.
What to Watch For
Leaders who are overseeing large strategic initiatives must become attuned to collective emotion—a term that refers to the emotions shared by a group of people. This is quite different from a single person’s individual emotions. Your staff may collectively feel a certain way about a strategic change because of how it impacts their group as a whole, rather than how it impacts them as individuals. Together, they experience “group-focus emotions.”
As a leader, this can work for you or against you. If, as a group, your team has a positive emotional response to the strategy at hand, they’re more likely to be fully engaged in the execution of it. They’ll make smarter decisions, troubleshoot problems more aggressively, and keep things moving forward even in the face of difficulty. That attitude can have a ripple effect throughout other teams and even the entire organization, thus enhancing the overall likelihood of success.
If the collective emotion is negative, that too can ripple outward and cause a major organizational backlash. When the team isn’t emotionally invested in the success of the strategy, they’re less likely to step up and do what it takes to make it happen—and more likely to sabotage efforts, whether intentionally or not. Their judgment, communication, and productivity can all suffer due to the emotional conflict.
What to Do
From the top-levels of leadership all the way to middle management and the frontline, people have been trained to suppress their emotions in the workplace. However, research shows that this can have counterproductive effects. Emotions don’t simply evaporate when they’re ignored; all too often, they intensify. People begin to look for emotional comradery with the people around them and, as they do, they identify shared emotion. Pretty soon, the collective is emotionally in sync and looking for evidence to re-enforce their feelings.
Instead of perpetuating the business “norm” of emotional suppression, give people ample opportunity for constructive expression of their feelings. In the words of Parin Mehta, AirBnB Director for Asia-Pacific and INSEAD MBA alum, leaders should “ask, listen, and follow-up.” Show them that you’re doing so and that you value their input. Observe emotions that aren’t clearly articulated in words—those that are demonstrated through actions, body language, and facial expressions. Mehta also stresses the importance of helping team members feel that they can be open and vulnerable in front of colleagues.
According to Quy Huy, Associate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD, those in middle management may have a particularly difficult time expressing their emotions. This stems from concern that executives may react by doubting their ability and motivation. You can ease fears and encourage open dialogue by creating a supportive, non-judgmental and non-retaliatory environment for these discussions.
Ultimately, your role as a leader is not simply to create the vision or even sell it to your team. It is also your job to help clear away the emotional baggage that may hinder your team’s ability to successfully execute it. In order to maintain the necessary intrinsic motivation within your team, Mehta highlights the importance of tying strategy and emotions together with a bold mission. For leaders who are attempting to navigate the collective emotions of employees, “emotional capital” skills are essential. The stigma attached to emotions in the workplace must be smashed. Otherwise, your organization’s big ideas may remain nothing more than just that—ideas.