A Leader’s Guide To Managing Emotions At Work

Ever since Daniel Goleman’s book “EQ”, appreciation for the role of emotional intelligence within leadership and the workplace has grown. Emotional Intelligence may be defined as:

  • The ability to recognise emotions and respond appropriately (in one’s own conduct as well as dealings with others)
  • The ability to express and manage one’s emotions in an effective manner
  • The ability to handle interactive relationships effectively

Dr Will Schutz who pioneered the FIRO-B psychometric (a relational scale), went so far as to say that social relationships are as important to healthy living as food and water, but the secret to success comes in understanding the type of relationship which is most beneficial to oneself and for others. Also, Hochschild, author of The Managed Heart, raises awareness of the importance of recognising and supporting the emotional demands of a job (that go beyond the technical skills and qualifications) because a lack of appreciation of this can lead to burnout.

Humans are naturally social beings, and as such, the workplace can fulfil a need for interaction.  Therefore, knowing how to best engage with others as well as boost our own energy tank and support colleagues (because emotional management can be exhausting), is hugely beneficial to any organisation.  

The role of emotions

Largely emotions evolved to keep us safe.  Feeling fear helps us survive in a threatening environment, and feeling love helps us form companionship which in turn may help propagate the species, or at the very least enable us to be part of a community.  Therefore, emotions are a helpful guidance system for our instinctive feelings.

On a physiological level, the emotional response to challenge is the stress response. Adrenaline starts pumping, heart rate heightens, and you may get clammy – your body is preparing to fight or flee.  While in some circumstances, a little stress can be a good thing – a sharpening of focus can assist performance or even competition – but normalising the stress response (or suppressing it altogether) is neither helpful for you nor your team.  

As we have evolved, it can also be a very effective technique to be able to choose our emotional display (in a similar way to “posturing” to seem more threatening, or “preening” to show off one’s attractiveness…in our social interactions.)  This display can often be part of a job role that clients may expect, for example, a nurse being kind or a teacher being approachable. However, it can be exhausting because it may not be authentic. As such, emotional management enhances our interactions but can come at a cost, if the emotions we need to display go against how we are really feeling.

Getting the best out of your emotions

Get used to being honest about your emotions. Stop saying “I’m fine” – and start being honest with yourself (at the very least) and others as to how you are really feeling.

There is no shame in admitting you need support.

You role model this for your teams and can potentially signpost them to available interventions, and you are far more likely to grow through the experience than if you use a fake smile or suppression as a coping strategy. When you reach out, however, consider who would be the most effective person.  

Be mindful when seeking support

Following on from point 1, as always, it is best to seek help before the point of crisis, or before it gets to the point where it is taken out of your hands because you are no longer able to cope and your body breaks physically or emotionally.

Once you seek help, there will be other techniques that will be given to you by professionals – depending on who you see and the approach to psychology that they take – but they are equipped to support you in a way that friends are not, and you will also then not feel you are burdening anyone because the professional is doing their job.  A GP can often make a referral for talking therapy, and often, as a leader, professional intervention, or at least a mentor or contemporary may be preferred as family and friends can be too close to you or the situation. A professional will give you objective ways to work through.

Deal in fact over emotion where necessary

Being able to discuss a situation that is bothering you rationally can be a healthy way to express negative emotions but some simple tips can make this more successful:

  • Have the discussion when you are NOT hugely emotional (otherwise it is likely to turn into an argument where winning becomes the goal, not solving the problem) – sometimes you need to walk away, then return to the discussion.  But if you are going to walk away – tell the other person you need a moment and you will be back.
  • Have your agenda written out if you can – it is easy to be pulled off track and again it is important to keep your focus on resolution. Hold the discussion somewhere neutral if you can.
  • Stick to the facts of a situation you want to resolve rather than an interpretation, and in a difficult conversation, use evidence and written procedure where available.
  • Have an idea of what you want as a solution but be flexible – and then listen.

Emotions are incredibly valuable and managing them to the best effect can be both effective, and exhausting. But, the ability to recognise and understand emotions and how they may be expressed or interpreted, and the ability to manage and utilise them effectively all contribute not just to a successful organisation, but one that feels psychologically safe as well.  In turn, a healthy emotional culture retains and attracts high-fliers, and builds and maintains positive relationships with clients, contributing to organisational longevity.

About the author: Dr Audrey Tang is a  psychologist, wellbeing expert, and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience

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