Emotions in leadership are not something to be feared. Emotions are what makes us human, so we shouldn’t try to turn them off or suppress them.
However, as leaders, people are always looking at us, seeing how we respond to challenges. People are looking to us, to show restraint and make good decisions even when under stress.
Unmanaged Emotions and Your Team
When emotions aren’t managed and held in check, we start to see reactive leadership. This can show itself in many different ways. Here are just a few:
1. Knee-jerk decisions, without thought: When a leader feels scared, angry or threatened, they may make decisions without considering the impacts as they normally would.
2. Inappropriate outbursts: If a leader can’t process their emotions very well, they may say things they later regret. Once it’s out of your mouth the damage is done, so it’s best to avoid it in the first place!
3. Visible signs: Leaders who can’t keep their fear or anxiety in check may unsettle their team, because they are visibly under stress. This can cause team members to worry, because if a leader is worried… “We must be in big trouble!”
4. Accidental offence: Even positive emotions can get leaders in trouble if they aren’t sensitive to their environment. Joking and laughing openly in front of someone who has just lost their job is a bad example of this that I’ve actually observed!
Unmanaged emotions can have a big impact on your team, so it’s important to keep them in check.
Related: 5 Ways Leaders Can Stay Calm at Work.
Emotions as Information
There are several major theories regarding emotions, including why and how they arise. I’m no psychologist, so I’ll refer you to this article from Very Well Mind.
One of the most helpful ways that I have found to think about emotions is simply to consider them as information. If you are able to notice when they occur along with the triggers that caused them, you can gain valuable insights into your environment as well as your own mindset.
Example: A Questioning Senior Manager
For example, if you’re sitting in a meeting and a senior manager asks you some questions about what you’re working on, you may feel scared or anxious.
This is valuable information, because it tells you that perhaps you didn’t feel prepared for the questions, or that you are feeling exposed.
On the other hand, if you feel calm in response to the questions, this tells you that you feel comfortable enough to answer them, without feeling threatened.
The trick is to be able to take in the information from your emotions and process it before you respond. If you felt threatened and instinctively responded with “Why do you need to know that?”, it probably wouldn’t look too good.
On the other hand, you could perhaps respond with some high-level information, and then say “If you would like to know more, we could meet at another time and I can give you a proper update.”
Event -> Emotion -> Response
If we can accept that emotions are simply information telling us things about our environment and our own internal state of mind, it’s worth looking at how we respond.
Firstly, an event occurs in our environment. Almost instantly, we feel an emotion attached to the event, without even thinking about it. If we have strong emotional awareness, we notice this emotion. Then, we process our feelings and respond to the event.
If you are unaware of your emotions, you are likely to respond quickly and instinctively. This is when you start to do things like make sarcastic or unprofessional remarks, shout at somebody or throw your laptop across the room.
We know these are bad things to do, but people do them anyway. Why?
Because they haven’t taken time to check their emotions (as information) and respond appropriately. These instinctive responses come from our primitive lizard brain.
In my experience, it’s very rare to need an instant response in the workplace. In general, we can take a few seconds to think before acting. It’s critical to use this time to process our emotions and deliver a response that is appropriate, and one that we can be proud of.
If you are being attacked by a lion or you see a snake, you want to harness some of these instinctive reactions. But rarely do you need to respond to such a threat in the workplace.
Emotional Awareness is the First Step
The first step in addressing the challenge of emotions in leadership is to notice when you have them – a key part of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Some good emotions to look for are feelings of insecurity, frustration, fear, jealousy, hurt and anger.
These negative emotions are handy to recognise, because they often lead to actions that can hurt others or damage your reputation. An insecure leader for example, might do and say things to try to make themselves look good, at the expense of others.
I’ve found that the best way to become aware of your emotions is to do some simple mindfulness exercises. Over time, they make a big difference – I describe some of the ones that I do in this post about mindfulness in leadership.
These exercises help you to identify emotions, but also to recognise how your body feels. The physical feelings within your body can help you to identify stress triggers so you can start to tell when you’ve had an emotional response to some event.
Applying It In Practice
After you’re aware of your emotions when they occur, you need to start applying this in the workplace. I like to do this by monitoring my thoughts and feelings as I go about my day.
For example, if I’m sitting in a meeting and I notice myself becoming tense, I’ll intentionally relax my body and try to identify the trigger of the tension. If I’m able to do that successfully, it might just help me to respond to the situation.
I also like to use some simple questions to try to diagnose any potential issues:
- What is the emotion?
- What event triggered the emotion?
- Why do I feel this way? (you can do some simple root cause analysis to work out the cause)
- Can I do anything to avoid being triggered again?
- How can I respond better next time?
Try working through these questions to see whether you can get to the bottom of some of your tricky emotions.
Honestly, everybody is a work in progress when it comes to managing emotions in leadership.
We can always be better than we were yesterday, and we’re always encountering new people and situations that trigger our emotions in new and interesting ways!
What do you think about emotions in leadership and how do you handle them? Leave a comment with your experiences and share it with the other Thoughtful Leaders!