Can you learn how to manage negative emotions from movies? Well, who doesn't have a favourite scene from a film they use as a talisman during tough moments? And now, there's research to back that movies can teach you a lot about managing emotions in a tough work environment. In a newly published paper, James Summers, an expert in team management and adaptation at Iowa State University, and his co-author, Timothy Munyon, professor of management at the University of Tennessee, argue that negative emotions if leveraged in the right way can help teams adapt – and they make their case by dissecting scenes from three blockbuster movies, each of which represent a different type of team and threat.
For instance, in the 1995 film, Braveheart, during a critical plot point, the Scottish forces face a larger and better-equipped English army during the First War of Scottish Independence from England. While the former are ready to withdraw, the protagonist, William Wallace uses humour to get the soldiers' attention and then goes on to talk about their shared identity (sons of Scotland) to appeal to the army and follows it by validating their fear. Through his speech, he changes the soldiers’ fear to anger, which ensures their victory.
Pointing this out in the paper, Summer explains in the statement that although it is known that anger can hinder our ability to cognitively process, it is not necessarily bad all the time. Summers adds, “Have you ever been mad and had a great workout?”
Citing another example, the researchers point out how in the film, Remember the Titans (2000), a team transitions from negative emotions that are non-functional to functional.
Simmers and Munyon also refer to the Wolf of Wall Street (2013) to show how teams can fail to make use of negative emotions. When the protagonist is advised to quit his company due to outside pressures, he initially agrees but changes his mind when he sees his team distraught during the farewell speech. This decision eventually leads to the company's downfall.
Commenting on this, the researchers say in the statement, “Although he rationally understood the necessity of adaptation, we contend that Belfort’s emotions led him to self-deception where he persuaded himself to maintain the status quo.”
According to Summers teams often face disruptions such as a critical member moving on or the loss of an important project. During these, it’s normal to experience fear, anger, anxiety or sadness.
To help teams adapt to such disruptions, the researchers explain that it is important to pay attention. “If someone withdraws or is having a bad day, don’t ignore it or shrug it off — acknowledge it. Only then can you help them shape that emotion into something that’s functional,” Summer advises in the statement.