Emotions at Work: The Key to Success

Several years ago, I made one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made as a business person and author.

My employer, Rally Software, had agreed to publish my first book, Agile Business, and had allocated a significant amount of my time to the project. It was a generous deal for a first-time author and an incredible opportunity to take my career to a new level.

The book was a collection of essays by several colleagues and myself, which I edited and tied together into a coherent whole. There were some unique challenges presented by such a complex project, and much of the work needed to happen before writing even started.

I spent almost a year creating a business case and a solid project plan that the company would fund. It took so long because the first few plans I developed were rejected by the executive team.

After the first two failures, I realized I needed a team to help me and built a small coalition of people from different parts of the company who believed in the project. Finally, the fourth version of the plan was approved by the executives and we were off and running.

The first step in our plan was to release a small version of the book, basically a minimum value product, that would contain a few essays along with a complete table of contents and an introduction to tease the full book to be released the following year.

We worked quickly to get this trial version of the book done in only a few months, just in time for it to be the booth giveaway at the Agile 2012 conference in Dallas. It was challenging, fun, and a time of intense growth for me.

The next phase was much harder.


About a week after the conference, I got a call from the new head of marketing — she had not been part of the initial coalition — who told me that the marketing team had met and decided not to pursue the project any further.

I was crushed.

As I processed the news, I came to believe that the marketing department didn’t have the right to cancel the project. It was after all the full executive team that had approved the book. I also felt scared because I had made a commitment to them to get the project done and now I’d failed.

It was here that I went into self-righteous mode and where I made my big mistake. But it would be almost a year before I felt the full impact of my error.

I was in the right and I knew it. What I should have done was go directly to the head of marketing — perhaps after getting the support of a key executive or two — and make the case to her that the project was important, valuable, and had the full support of the executive team.

Instead, I ambushed her in a large meeting.

Rally was an enlightened and well-managed company — the best I’d ever worked for. The leadership team had a practice in place that allowed anyone in the company to bring an item to the monthly executive meeting, which was how I’d sold the plan initially.

I put myself on the docket for the next meeting and, when my time came to speak, I informed the executives that the book project had been canceled — a fact that was news to many of them — and asked them to reconsider the decision.

After a bit of discussion, one of the senior execs said something to the effect of “We’ve already authorized this project, so why are we talking about it again? Go do it.”

So I got what I wanted — sort of.

I got the budget and time to finish writing and printing the book, but that’s only half the battle in book publishing. To be successful, books need to be carefully promoted, and for that to happen, I needed, you guessed it, the support of the marketing department.

With a difficult project like the launch of a first book — something none of us had done before — I needed not just their cooperation but also their enthusiasm and creativity. Something I, of course, never got.

By forcing the hand of the marketing team through hierarchical authority, I got compliance but not collaboration. I lost key allies and, as a result, the book I’d worked (we’d worked) so hard on never had a chance.

Agile Business had its fans, but it never found much of an audience. Instead of being a career accelerator for me and a marketing channel for Rally, it became an expensive pamphlet to give away at a few conferences.

While I got to add “author” to my LinkedIn profile and learned what it takes to write and publish a book, it could have been so much more.

I’m proud of the book, but I also know that the project failed.


The mistake I made was ambushing the head of marketing and making an enemy out of someone I needed as an ally. My behavior eroded trust, which killed any hope of enthusiastic support. Instead of enrolling her, I’d coerced her.

I see clients and colleagues make this same mistake, and I still make it myself. It’s too easy to pay attention only to the text of a situation — the authority, capability, or budgetary outcome — but miss the subtext — emotions, engagement, and relationships.

What makes or breaks many projects, especially projects that require creativity, is the emotional context of the team, not the team’s skills or intelligence.

It’s useful to visualize an iceberg when thinking about team health. Above the water line are the things that are relatively easy to see and assess; things like skills, experience, and intelligence sit here. These are important, but the hidden factors of emotionality are what really make or break a project.

The real magic happens when you also have people on your team who are both skilled and who care.

I’d go so far as to say that nothing of real value or real importance happens in organizations when people don’t care. Care is really another word for engagement and it is the difference between functional mediocrity and true excellence.

My mistake was getting the skills and resources I needed through brute-force authority. While I had a strong case and good reasons to do what I did, I proved myself to have extremely low sensitivity to the emotionality of the situation and no sensitivity to the value of my relationship with a key member of the team.

If you want to do well in business, and in life, it pays to focus on emotions. Perception in many cases constructs reality, and how people feel about you will affect whether or not you succeed.


Further Reading: I highly recommend the article “Connect, Then Lead” by Amy Cuddy (on how to build trust) and the books “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss (on negotiating with emotions in mind) and “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work” by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy.

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