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When Emotions Run High, It’s Time to Lead

Group feelings can take on a life of their own, and when that happens, different strategies can help address the dynamics and move forward.

Mar 14, 2023  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

More often than not, things feel normal again at schools. At least that’s what I’ve seen and heard from you and your colleagues, most recently during the 2023 NBOA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles this past February. Concerns about the health and wellness of our students, faculty and staff, however, remain in the zeitgeist. And when the wellbeing of any of these groups is frayed, emotions can run high.

I continue to be impressed by the quality of conversations among school leadership regarding the commitment to faculty, staff and student wellness and the ways leadership backs that commitment thoughtfully and with the appropriate human and financial resources. But even in the best of circumstances, staying attuned to emotional undercurrents of the community will serve leaders well. That’s why I read with great interest the recent Harvard Business Review article, “ Managing Your Team’s Emotional Dynamic,” authored by Amit Goldenberg. The article is rich with key takeaways for leaders looking to understand emotional undercurrents and ways to channel these human reactions.

Consider these hypothetical scenarios, adapted for the independent school context. Example one: an individual faculty member, let’s say a department head, tells you they feel strongly that they are not receiving the financial resources that they need. Example two: you sit in on a faculty meeting in which two or three faculty begin voicing that their academic areas need more financial support and that the current budget process seems inadequate — and perhaps additional voices pile on. The first situation with a single individual is going to be much easier to manage than the second with the group. Sometimes feelings take on a life of their own, Goldenberg explains.

Dealing directly with the emotional response when it’s contained to one individual or avoiding it in the first place are both, of course, desirable. But when you need to address team-wide emotions — and all leaders most likely will at some point — Goldenberg offers tools that may help. These three areas stood out as relevant to our schools:

  • Situation Modification: The authors suggest team rituals can help channel or mitigate intense emotions. Our schools are rich with rituals for students, but what about your team? In the corporate world, Goldenberg writes, high pressure sales teams could identify a way to decompress toward the end of the week so that they can rejuvenate over their weekend and start the next week anew. At the small but mighty nonprofit NBOA, we take the last five minutes of our all staff meetings to allow any member of the team to recognize another individual who really came through for them and elevate that good work for the entire staff. This is especially important to NBOA’s largely distributed team; great work happens every day, but it may not be readily apparent to others. What rituals could your team employ to hear out emotional responses without stifling progress?
  • Shifting Attention: The article cites a time at Apple during the late 90s when staff was becoming increasingly demoralized because Microsoft, and particularly Microsoft Office suite, was becoming increasingly dominant. Steve Jobs reminded the team that Apple needed to focus on what Apple was best at delivering and not be distracted by Microsoft’s strengths. The companies were not in fact competing in a zero-sum game. I see parallels here with independent schools. We sometimes get trapped comparing ourselves to our frequent “competitors” rather than focusing on our own school’s unique mission and value proposition. In my view, a school cannot succeed by mimicking or copying the success of another. If your team is focused on looking at other schools rather than your own, it’s clear the team’s emotional energy needs to be refocused to make continued progress.
  • Reappraisal: Schools and organizations can always learn from a strong emotional response, and it’s up to leaders to frame it as such. This is not to suggest we whitewash any difficult situation. Rather, leaders can project support, encouragement and positivity when it’s genuine. The vernacular I have used when discussing less successful initiatives is naming them a “fabulous failure.” This injects humor into a situation where disappointment for the hard work that did not produce the desired results may have a negative impact on the team. The goal is to figure out what didn’t work and how we’ll do better because of this experience the next time.

When emotions are running high, it’s up to leaders within schools to respond to them strategically, based on the specific circumstances. Endeavoring to bottle up frustration or even anger in the long-term will become only more damaging and unhealthy. Instead, engaging a strategy or two, like those outlined here, provides you and the team the opportunity to address the core issue, regain cultural equilibrium and refocus on achieving the next accomplishment. I hope that the next time you uncover this dynamic, you will feel better prepared to lead the team forward in a way that people feel both heard and motivated to make progress.

Jeff Shields signature


Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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