Group emotional awareness or how to prevent controversy turning into conflict

Key insights:

  • The optimum level of group emotional awareness is fertile ground for the development of emotion regulation mechanisms that enable a team to prevent controversy escalating into conflict.
  • Two simple interventions at the beginning of team work can compensate for team members’ low emotional awareness and have the same impact as actual group emotional awareness in terms of developing emotion regulation mechanisms: (1) emotional awareness norms and (2) positive expectations about group emotional awareness.
  • Awareness norms, however, are counterproductive when used in teams made up of highly emotionally aware individuals.
  • Group emotional awareness and emotion regulation mechanisms are all the more essential to address the challenges in an increasingly complex world.

For years now there has been talk about emotional intelligence, debating the role of emotions in the workplace. While researchers are increasingly recognising the importance of emotions, managers have yet to be convinced. Recent research by Professor Smaranda Boroș and colleagues shows that discussing emotions in teams is not at all a ‘soft’ approach. On the contrary, emotional awareness and emotion regulation will help teams perform better, enabling more creativity and healthy controversy.

Conceptual blur

“One of the reasons why the concept of emotional intelligence didn’t yield the results we had hoped for, is that there’s a lot of confusion about its definition and measurement”, Smaranda says. “The classical concept is a multidimensional one, with everything social mixed up and lumped together under the label emotional intelligence. Recently, we, and many other researchers with us, have started focusing on emotional awareness and emotion regulation, i.e. two separate successive steps, and we showed that you have to develop emotional awareness first in order to then be able to develop emotion regulation mechanisms.”

More than the sum of its parts

At an individual level, emotional awareness means the correct reading of emotions, feelings or moods of others and of oneself. But when it comes to groups, it is a system-level property, as Smaranda explains: “Groups that are emotionally aware are sensitive to changes in the emotional atmosphere, such as sudden silences, people withdrawing from a discussion, or escalating tensions, and, as a group, they pick up on them quickly.” She goes on: “While previous studies defined and measured group emotional awareness either as the aggregate of individual emotional awareness of group members, or as group norms supporting awareness, we have taken the position that it is both and more, which is reflected in our definition of group emotional awareness as an emergent state, i.e. something that emerges from the interaction of the individual emotional capabilities of team members and group norms.”

Sweet spot

Why is group emotional awareness important? Previous research shows that a lack of group emotional awareness is one of the sources of escalating conflicts, of differences in opinion getting personal. However, it also shows that highly emotionally aware groups can get stuck in emotional processes, leaving insufficient attentional resources for the task at hand. So, there seems to be a sweet spot. “And when a team has this optimal level of emotional awareness,” Smaranda says, “that’s when it starts developing emotion regulation strategies, i.e. mechanisms to deal with the emotions. As a result, high task conflict will not jeopardise the team’s performance, because potential conflict is recognised and mitigated.”

A simple set of rules can do the trick

The question then is how do you develop group emotional awareness? Smaranda’s research identifies three ways of doing this. One is having team members that are all emotionally aware. If this is the case, there is no need to interfere, as group emotional awareness is going to emerge because of the team members’ capabilities, and so will emotion regulation mechanisms.

But what if team members don’t have this capability? “The good news is that you don’t have to start training every individual team member”, Smaranda smiles. “Our study shows that emotional awareness norms can compensate for team members’ low emotional awareness.”

Reassuringly, she adds: “These norms or rules of engagement can be quite simple really, along the lines of ‘Before starting the actual work, ask every team member how they feel’, or, ‘When you notice some team members stay silent, ask them to join in’, or, ‘When you notice you’re rushing to a decision, take a step back and think again’, etcetera. In our experimental set-up half of the teams studied received a set of five norms, half didn’t. We saw that teams without high individual levels of emotional awareness that adopted these norms developed equally efficient emotion regulation mechanisms as did teams formed of emotionally aware individuals.”

But rules are not for everyone

From a practical, managerial perspective, emotional awareness norms seem a low-threshold intervention. But Smaranda warns that emotional awareness norms can also be counter-productive. “If you were to give explicit norms to a team made up of highly emotionally aware individuals, it would paralyse them. In such teams these norms cause the team members to overly focus their attention on processing emotional stimuli rather than on developing the essential emotion regulation strategies, which they would have done naturally in the absence of norms.”

Expectation is the mother of manifestation

Another experiment revealed that expectations about group emotional awareness, i.e. about how the team will work together, have the same impact as actual group emotional awareness in terms of developing emotion regulation mechanisms.

“We measured group emotional awareness expectations before the start of the experiment by having participants fill out a questionnaire. Participants were then split into groups and given a high-pressure task. We found that having positive expectations about group emotional awareness enabled team members to have vivid discussions and disagreements about how to solve the task without this controversy escalating into personal conflict. At the end of the task we measured the level of group emotional awareness that was developed in the teams. Our observation remained valid: even controlling for the actual group emotional awareness, the expectation of group emotional awareness prevents task conflict from escalating.”

The earlier the better

What these studies show is that creating positive expectations about the collaboration and the emotional interaction or, alternatively, adopting explicit norms have the same impact on the development of emotion regulation strategies. Either of these easy interventions help to prevent conflict, to better deal with controversy. Smaranda insists it is important that they happen in the beginning of the teamwork. A second study indeed sheds light on the optimal timing of emerging group emotional awareness. When group emotional awareness is low, task conflict early on in the teamwork will hinder the development of emotion regulation mechanisms, as these can only develop when group emotional awareness is at an optimum level. “We showed that early group emotional awareness prevents conflict escalation. For managers this means that instead of using a project kick-off to discuss goals and roles and responsibilities, they should make sure the team takes time to get to know each other and pay attention to how they’ll be working together, create group norms and positive expectations.”

Complex times require complex solutions

The practical implications of these findings cannot be overestimated. “We are living in complex and challenging times. Successful decision-making requires teams to scout the environment for new stimuli, think about novel solutions and deal with lots of uncertainty and ambiguity. As a result, they have to cope with emotions like tension and anxiety. But because the human mind likes predictability and simple solutions, we risk repeating the same old recipes that may not be suitable, without contemplating alternatives”, Smaranda explains, and, enthusiastically, she goes on: “Now this is where group emotional awareness comes into play. Teams that are aware of any pressure or tension building up, which may impact their judgement and lead them to rushing into solutions, will be able to say, ‘Hold on, let’s take a deep breath’. And then the emotion regulation part can take over. Rather than rushing into solutions on autopilot they can stay with the uncertainty, discuss alternatives, disagree, and come to more creative solutions and better team performance. Group emotional awareness also enables diversity in all its forms, especially diversity of opinion. It allows the child who sees the emperor is naked to speak up.”


  • The paper “Boros, S. and Vîrgă, D. (2020), Too much love will kill you: the development and function of group emotional awareness” is published in Team Performance Management, Vol 26 No. ½, pp. 71-90.
  • The paper “Boroș, S (2020), Controversy Without Conflict: How Group Emotional Awareness and Regulation can Prevent Conflict Escalation” is published in Group Decision and Negotiation. You can request copies from the authors.

About the authors
Smaranda Boroș is a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management and Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School.  Delia Vîrgă is a Professor of Organisational Psychology at the West University of Timișoara, Romania.

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