For the past 18 months, managers have been grappling with an unprecedented amount of uncertainty, trying to lead when the future has seemed cloudy and confusing. That uncertainty seems likely to continue, with the Delta variant still threatening and many workplaces intending to teeter-totter between remote and office work. It’s therefore timely that a new study of how best to manage the emotions and anxiety related to that uncertainty has appeared.
Thirty leaders from the U.S. and U.K. were invited to write weekly journal entries in May and June of last year, with each individual describing major emotional turmoil, from trying to keep emotions in check, to a sense of dread, to losing the will to live. Three leadership patterns emerged, which the researchers gave labels to:
- Heroes: Managers who focused on the positive, assuring their teams they would get through the crisis no matter what.
- Technocrats: Leaders who ignored emotions altogether and focused on tactical solutions to the pandemic predicament.
- Sharers: Leaders who openly acknowledged their fears, stresses and other negative emotions.
“While there are pros and cons to every leadership style, we found that sharers were particularly successful in building cohesive, high-performing teams that were resilient in the face of the myriad challenges posed by the pandemic,” University of Zurich management professors Lauren Howe and Jochen Menges and consultant John Monks report in Harvard Business Review.
They note that while there is value in positivity, ignoring negative emotions actually makes you feel worse. As one manager put it: “I’m sick of reading, self-motivating, learning, staying upbeat, etc. when all I can feel is tiredness from overwork and fear.” As well, if the manager appears not to be struggling, people feel distant from that executive.
Ignoring emotions, as the technocrats did, similarly stumbled. It undermined the manager’s mental health. The emphasis on results also distanced the leaders from their staff, as bosses jettisoned their softer side and ignored people’s feelings.
“While emotions may seem frivolous to some, they in fact drive everything leaders care about, from job performance to turnover to customer satisfaction. By ignoring emotions, technocrats fail both to harness the positive emotions that spur performance and to address the negative emotions that undermine it,” the researchers noted.
The sharing style was the most effective. It made the leaders seem more human and connected them at a deeper level with their teams. When managers were open about their own inner turmoil, subordinates could do the same, which helped everyone cope more effectively with their negative emotions.
Emotions, of course, are not something we normally talk about at work. So that means more people will be inclined to follow the two less effective styles. In busy periods, as well, it can seem like emotional conversations will require more time than is available.
But the researchers suggest you can change your style through self-reflection, tracking your emotions daily, and starting small, sharing a bit with one or two people. Plan your disclosures in advance; it doesn’t pay to share every dark thought roaming through your brain or to vent aimlessly. Lean on your support network – trusted colleagues, or your spouse – and model effective emotional regulation so others can manage their own emotions.
“Even when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, negative emotions are a fact of life. The most effective leaders are those who don’t push those emotions under the rug, but who instead openly and honestly acknowledge the challenges they face – and invite their employees to do the same,” they say.
Executive coach Ed Batista emphasizes the importance of emotions with his clients because a leader’s emotions are contagious and one who is unable to regulate his or her emotions is going to be much less effective. Over time, as he does that, he has been noticing a greater appreciation for the value of emotions in professional life and with it an acceptance of a wider range of emotional expression.
That has meant people can communicate more clearly, more directly and on a wider range of topics. But with that has come what he calls “the tyranny of feelings” in which some believe their feelings are justified because feelings are precious and take precedence over other considerations.
“The enveloping nature of our emotional response serves an essential purpose by priming us to take swift, decisive action. But sometimes that’s exactly the wrong move, and we’re better served by resisting those impulses and considering a broader range of options,” he writes on his blog. He urges you to recognize we are not emotions – we have emotions.
As well, we need to recognize that external factors do not cause our emotions. It’s too easy to blame others for our emotions – or events such as the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns – and not acknowledge our contribution.
“We’re not passive recipients of the data through which we interpret and make sense of the world. We play an active role in every stage of the process as we gather, interpret, and respond to that data,” he says.
Reason won’t win out over emotions, he stresses. Emotions can’t be controlled but they can be regulated. That doesn’t mean trying to suppress them, which he argues only catapults us into a world of make-believe.
“Emotion regulation means improving our ability to sense, comprehend, articulate and express what we’re feeling, and we develop those skills by getting closer to our emotions, not by distancing ourselves from them,” he says.
As the uncertainty continues, think about the role of emotions in your leadership style.
- If you are Delta-delayed in shifting to a hybrid workplace, remote work expert Kevin Eikenberry suggests taking the extra time to assess readiness and to provide training and coaching for the skillsets and mindsets of hybrid work.
- To assess a job candidate’s ability to help in your diversity efforts, Aubrey Blanche, director of equitable design, product and people at the engagement platform Culture Amp, recommends asking: How do you personally learn how to be more inclusive? What’s an example of a situation in which these learnings have changed the way you do your job?
- Wharton School professor Russell Ackoff found after six weeks people in organizations fail to remember critical assumptions on which strategy is based. Even worse, says Columbia University professor Rita McGrath, we take our assumptions and magically turn them into facts in our minds.
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