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How strategizing on collective emotions will make you successful leaders

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

Recognising the power of collective emotions: I have begun addressing this issue with research and teaching to better equip senior executives to identify collective emotions, who has them, what are the causes, what are the political agendas and how to command trust.

Collective emotions are very different from personal emotions and much more potent. They are the emotions a large number of people feel about a cause or new strategy – and this is not likely to dissipate so easily. If someone is unhappy about something a CEO has intentionally or unintentionally done and speaks about it, the feeling can fester and be reinforced during conversations about similar incidents with other middle managers. The feelings will be validated, amplified and over time – it could be years – expand to become a vast coalition of individuals sharing negative emotions about the strategy because they believe it can harm their group’s welfare – even if their personal welfare is not at stake. For example, thousands of football fans may feel collective anger about the defeat of their team and go into a riot even if it is unlikely such a loss would impact their professional jobs or the welfare of their families. We call this phenomenon “group-focus emotions”. It is not even necessary for group-focus emotions to be expressed or shared with other people. It is possible for many members of a group to feel the same group-focus emotions if, for instance, they interpret an event in a similar way.

Managing collective emotions, and taking appropriate emotion management action is a key –

yet often ignored – role for executives who want to increase the odds of success of strategy execution. One way to break the barrier is to actively encourage the expression of emotions and their causes at work – in a climate of relative psychological safety.

Although learning about emotional intelligence could help executives

deal with emotions in interpersonal interactions or a small group, dealing with the various patterns of collective emotions of hundreds or even tens of thousands of people require what we call “emotional capital” skills, which we teach to executives at INSEAD in our Strategy Execution programmes.

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