Should you express emotions with your new venture team?
New research provides evidence for showing your emotions at work – but there are occasions when managing them may also be crucial to the survival of your business
Should you manage your emotions when working as part of a team? Past research shows stifling your natural feelings can make you more aggressive and lead to poorer performance and mental health. New research shows this is especially true for entrepreneurs and co-founders, where team collaboration and cohesion are crucial in the very early stages. At the same time, there are also downsides to revealing your emotions at work, which suggests managing more challenging feelings is a critical skill that requires nuance and practice.
The study: Holding Back or Letting Go? The Effect of Emotion Suppression on Relationship Viability in New Venture Teams is co-authored by UNSW Business School’s Markus Groth, Professor of Organisational Behaviour in the School of Management and Governance, along with Stela Ivanova, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter Business School. The study examines how emotional suppression affects the relationships between venture teams consisting of entrepreneurs and co-founders of new businesses. The results offer important insights into how employees navigate their emotions at work to improve their chances of success.
How do emotions affect teams?
Past studies show emotions play a critical role in managing teams successfully to achieve shared goals. Prior research also shows almost 40 per cent of new venture teams lose one of their co-founders due to personal conflict and disagreement.
The study examines new venture teams – a team of individuals, in most cases two or three, who come together to start a new business. According to the study's authors, more than 80 per cent of businesses are started by a team of at least two people.
“These people are collectively responsible for the key decisions that are made in the early start-up stages of a business. The members of the new venture team all have skin in the game; they all have a stake and shares in the new business,” explains Dr Ivanova, the lead author of the study.
Indeed, one famous example is of co-founders Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia, who started Airbnb in 2008. In the very early stage of business creation, the new venture team is the entire entity of the organisation, and the survival of the business is closely interlinked with the survival of the team, which is what the study shows.
To find out how emotions affect new start-up teams, the authors conducted a two-year longitudinal observation of startups that were initially enrolled in an incubator program in Munich, Germany. “We went to their offices and collected data from each member of the team, asking them to list some of the challenges they have faced in the early days of the startup and what their personal, as well as their team members’, emotional reactions to these challenges. Then we asked each member to evaluate every relationship with a team member they have. Two years later, we revisited all startups to see which ones have survived and which ones have terminated their existence,” explains Dr Ivanova.
The good news? Most startups, roughly 75 per cent, survived. “Interestingly, at that time, we were in strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we expected that many of the startups would have terminated due to pandemic-related reasons. However, when interviewed, only one of the startups mentioned COVID and the lockdown restrictions as a reason for their termination,” says Dr Ivanova.
How emotions affect start-up team success
“At work, suppression is a commonly used strategy to regulate our emotions. It is hard to imagine a work environment where you let yourself scream to your boss, your co-worker or your client every time you feel anger or frustration,” explains Dr Ivanova. “In other words, suppression is often the expected, appropriate way of regulating our emotional expressions. However, suppression also feels inauthentic. In close relationships, like between co-founders, the burden of inauthenticity can affect the quality and longevity of our relationships.”
So, when are our emotions appropriate, and when should we take care with what we reveal to our colleagues? The study’s findings reveal two interesting parallels, which suggest that knowing when and how to show our true emotions at work significantly affects how we are perceived.
The study finds that, on one hand, emotion suppression is detrimental to building lasting and satisfying relationships within the startup team because it feels inauthentic for the suppressor. Since starting a new business requires internal motivation and is often an expression of one’s pursuit of authentic passion and interest. So, it is not surprising that entrepreneurs want to foster intimacy and self-disclosure with their co-founders, say the authors.
But on the other hand, emotion suppression during especially negative experiences (like not panicking when things don’t go to plan) can be beneficial for building lasting and satisfying relationships within the startup team because it is perceived as the appropriate response in times of intense negative experiences.
“Considering the startup is an early stage of organisational development, it is expected for the organisational members to adhere to commonly applied organisational social norms of appropriateness,” says Dr Ivanova. “At the same time, the fact that suppression can have both negative and positive effects on the relationship between co-founders shows that these types of relationships are nuanced and complex, just like relationships with romantic partners or work colleagues. Just like romantic relationships, they require the same level of care and nuance when it comes to learning to communicate our true feelings. At the same time, the work nature of these relationships means that feelings need to express in a work-appropriate controlled way."
Tips for sharing emotions with your team
To establish satisfying and lasting relationships in the early stage of new venture creation, co-founders should pay close attention to how they respond to emotionally charged events, say the authors. As the venture inevitably faces obstacles, they need to remain both authentic to their true selves as well as appropriate to their co-founders' social expectations to forge strong bonds.
In the startup stages of new business creation, the startup's survival is interconnected with the survival of the team of people who have come together to create the new business. Therefore, building satisfying and lasting relationships within this team is very important. “The predictive effect of suppression is what surprised us the most,” explains Dr Ivanova. “It seems that when it comes to the inevitable but unexpected challenges and problems that every startup faces, the teams that suppressed their emotional reaction most, potentially to focus on the task at hand, were more likely to exist two years later.”
We believe that for early-stage teams, it is important to establish shared rules and norms about what appropriate emotional expressions are to compensate for the burden of engaging in inauthentic emotion regulation strategies like suppression.
To facilitate sharing of more uncomfortable or painful emotions, co-founders could benefit from having dedicated space and time to express rather than suppress their negative emotional experiences without judgment, suggest the authors. “To make the most of suppression as a way of controlling our emotional expressions is to navigate the balancing act between acting in a way that is socially appropriate but also authentic for ourselves,” they conclude.
Markus Groth is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School, and Stela Ivanova is a Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter Business School. For more information about how emotion suppression impacts venture teams, read the study: Holding Back or Letting Go? The Effect of Emotion Suppression on Relationship Viability in New Venture Teams, or contact the academics directly.