Shifting Employee Anxiety to Excitement

Setbacks happen and often are associated with negative emotions. Someone who has lost a big account, been passed over for promotion, or produced poor quarterly results is bound to feel disappointment, frustration, or anger.

Many leaders, confronted with an upset team member, seek to avoid the negative emotions.  They either simply don’t like addressing the issues or want to make sure they it doesn’t have a negative impact on the rest of the team.  Managers generally dislike tension and an uncomfortable environment.

When managed appropriately, the initial dissatisfaction that accompanies negative emotions can jump start people towards a higher level of motivation and effort. When members of your team face disappointment or failure, you can use it to inspire and empower them. It comes down to knowing how to deliver a positive experience with engaging conversations about negative emotions. There are a number of effective methods to navigate a conversation to channel negative emotions into a positive, growth mindset.


Be transparent about the negative emotion and be intentional. Many leaders want to be the hero and attempt to save people from their negative emotions. This approach is not effective because the leader simply tries to discount the strong feelings, ignoring the energy that is present underneath. A better approach is to refocus this energy.

Change Resiliency

Take a change resilient approach and engage disappointed team members. Identify the negative emotion and invite them to discuss it. A senior leader I worked with at a consumer goods company reached out to me when she was passed over for a promotion. She was asked to complete a 360° assessment as part of the process and received highly critical feedback from her peers, which influenced the decision by the organization. She was surprised, shocked and completely caught off guard. I tried to shift her mindset and redirect the emotions this leader was experiencing. There was a ton of opportunity and potential and she simply shouldn’t get down on herself.  She told me how angry she was, but also how hurt. She wanted to fight, but also to quit. As she poured out her feelings, she grew visibly energized. The energy under the emotion surfaced. It is that energy that you want to channel in a constructive performance or development discussion.  This experience can help shift to a more forward-looking, growth mindset.

Self-talk Influences Results

Shape your internal self-talk to be a coach not a critic. Once the emotion is clear the energy underneath can be revealed.  Self-talk that says, “I clearly have a blind spot; I need to invest more time in understanding how I’m perceived by others.” This energy has the potential to spark doubt about one’s abilities and can trigger comments like, “people have finally realized I’ve been faking it all this time.”

On the other hand, if your internal self-talk is critical it can be self-destructive. Effective coaches engage people in creating a productive answer to the question, “What is this emotion telling me?” The critic in you answers with negatives and character weaknesses: “I’m stupid, lazy, unlikeable.” Self-talk that focuses on the positive, focuses on actions: “I need to work harder, think differently, and recruit support because I’m not there yet.”

As a leader, you can help shape the focus of an employee and help them cancel out their self-criticism by framing negative emotion as a sign of meaning. For example, you could say, “This really matters to you doesn’t it?” or “I can see how important this is to you.” Seeing negative emotion as a sign of inspiration or commitment can help fuel productive motivation.

Transfer Energy to Action

Leaders can also help shape a focus on the positive energy through storytelling.  Share examples of how and when you have seen this person demonstrate the right behaviors.  Share the situation, behavior and impact.  Create the experience that shift from the critic to the coach.   As a leader, you can help deflate the self-critic by candidly sharing your own experiences with struggle and growth — key moments where you felt you weren’t good enough and were subsequently able to push forward.

Channel energy to action. The energy that underlies negative emotion can be channeled into things we can control or toward highly unproductive ends. Encourage others to take control and shape a positive, growth mindset versus becoming cynical and focusing only on how bad things have become. These conversations can be influential as they tend to build a sense of connection among participants, but they ultimately lead nowhere.

In the case of the leader who was passed over for promotion, this was: “How will you feel in two months once you leveraged this feedback into actions and changes that improve your performance and overall influence?”

Negative emotions are painful, but leaders are responsible for helping shift them into something positive. People can flip a negative mindset into something positive and a leader plays a key role in help an individual shape the change.