Emotions in Leadership

Whether we like it or not, and however much we’d like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, we are living in bodies that have strong ties to their emotions. And if we are leading a team of other human beings, we are not only connected to them through rational thought (think goals, projects, tasks, creating jointly), but just as much as embodied beings and emotional beings. Just think about how tense your body feels when you’re stressed, how you start sweating when under pressure and how reading the news in the morning makes you feel this week. Very few people here in Europe wake up in the morning these days not feeling any impact of how the news from Ukraine make them feel right now. It may make us feel sad, angry, nauseous, helpless, overwhelmed, anxious, terrified or frozen. Feelings we definitely have in our bodies when showing up to work these days. These feelings also create a baseline emotional structure more likely leading to somebody showing up with less patience, making more mistakes, acting more aggressively, or staying silent and not contributing the way they normally would. This might simply be the best version of themselves they are capable to bring to work this week.

More generally speaking: If you think back to the highlights or low points of your career, these memories very likely bring up an emotion with them. Success or high points feel like moments that make us smile, feel proud, appreciated, seen, connected, loved, they may connect to surprise, curiosity, growth or courage, too. Low points may connect to feelings of shame, guilt, regret, anger, humiliation, anxiety, overwhelm or downright fear. Just think back how reaching that large milestone felt, how it felt to receive a promotion, how it felt to solve a really hard problem vs. how it felt to be made redundant, to be yelled at by somebody on your team, to be ridiculed for an idea or experiment that went wrong, or overlooked and kept small systemically due to some piece of your identity you cannot change.

How you feel at work is driving whether or not you want to contribute and ultimately stay in a team. Donald Sull, Charles Sull and Ben Zweig have recently published research showing how toxic culture is the main predictor for resignations. If you as a leader are not aware of, and actively working on, creating an inclusive culture in your team, one that makes your team members want to show up because they feel seen and appreciated, you are likely joining the ranks of organizations such as SpaceX (21.2%), Netflix (14.2%) or Goldman Sachs (15.2%) who have really high attrition rates compared to other companies in their industry who are known for better culture, such as Boeing in Aerospace and Defense (6.2%), Time Warner in Media and entertainment (6.2%) or HSBC in Financial Services (5.1%). (Source: MITSloan Managment Review, Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation). Interestingly a lot of fairly innovative companies seem to have high attrition rates. I wonder if part of that has to do with how these organizations deal with failure in combination with high pressure to find successful new ideas. Failing is always part of the game in experimenting with new ideas. Dealing poorly with failure can lead to blaming or harsh judgements, behaviors that may be experienced by your team members with shame, ridicule, humiliation or exclusion – emotions that may in the end lead to somebody describing their culture as “toxic”. So if you aim to be an innovative company, you must pay special attention to the emotional experience of your staff around failed experiments, else you may lose a lot of excellent talent.

This brings in a second theme I’ve been thinking about today. I listened to Brené Brown and Dan Pink discuss the topic of regret. They conclude that regret acts as an excellent teacher if you find ways to engage with the feeling well. Looking back at something that has not gone well, or a moment we are not proud of, we often feel a sense of regret. And we get to choose: do we want to ignore this and bottle it up, engage with it and ruminate on it and tell ourselves how bad we are, or approach it with curiosity and simply wonder: what might this moment teach me? And how would I want to encounter that situation should I face it again? We can then learn from this, choose to apologize, make amends, be vulnerable and share, speak about it and move on. None of that is easy to do, but you as a leader can model and encourage this and praise it, if you see somebody on your team act this way.

Thinking about my many years of working with Software Development Teams, this is exactly what a well run retrospective does. You ritualistically look at a period of time and ask yourself what the lessons are. Both the good and the bad. What went well the last two weeks? Let’s celebrate, amplify and repeat that. As well as what did not go well in that same time. Why did that happen? What can we change so we won’t repeat this? What have we learned? Those are challenging conversations to have with teams when you first start having them, but finding a safe way to have those conversations is the fastest way to develop a growth culture in a team. Opening the conversation with a plain statement that you truly believe that everyone on the team did the best they could with what they knew at the time has been one of the most powerful conversation tools for teams I have worked with. It helps to unpack errors, flawed processes, unexpected situations, teams working on too much at the same time, team members being overextended, unexpressed emotions in the team, etc… And despite the initial hesitation of teams to engage in those conversations, once they learn that these are safe to have, that pointing fingers and blaming won’t be tolerated (which is your job as a leader to model, monitor and enforce), that everyone is there to learn together and grow together, this can become a cherished ritual in surfacing hard topics in a safe way. The trick is to turn failures into learnings you can celebrate. (While hopefully not failing the same way again the following period. Which if you do, usually means you did not do a great job fully unpacking and understanding the issue the last time you spoke about it as a team.) Those conversations might be the practice of turning a feeling of being uncomfortable into something that leads to growth. That feeling of regret you have about something that went wrong never feels good, the remorse you feel when you see your part in this also never feels amazing. The trick is to turn these moments into a valued learning. Which is why I wholeheartedly agree that regret is a great teacher if you listen to it!

But emotions play a much larger role in everything a team does together. Because every member on the team is a human being, with a physical body and an emotional experience of everything that impacts their life. Emotions come into work with people every day. We have seen this quite drastically with the pandemic over the past two years, we see it with the team member who is grieving a loved one, who is going through a divorce, who has a partner struggling with their mental health or substance abuse and we are certainly seeing it in the past two weeks with how the war in Ukraine is impacting people. If your team has Ukrainians and/or Russians on the team you see it very closely. But even if your team is sitting in a relatively safe place like Germany, you see the unresolved generational trauma of WWII surface in these weeks. Team member have mothers or grandparents who remember the second world war, team members may come from countries with a recent violent past, or team members may simply look at the images we see come out of Ukraine and feel sad, angry, overwhelmed, helpless or depressed. Keeping the focus on Business as Usual without any mention or discussion of recent events may fast lead to an impression in your team that you as their leader are not acting very understanding or supportive of them as human beings. It is normal that your team may not be as productive, individuals may be more stressed, have less patience, get angry faster or make mistakes that are out of character for them. Finding the right balance between addressing this and your business goals is probably something nobody gets exactly right these days. These are scary and unsettling times for many of us and thinking these emotions would not impact your team is like thinking you can take the sunshine from your garden and your tomatoes will still turn ripe. So speak about it, normalize it by having people express their feelings and only then move on to finding ways to collaboratively work on your joint goals again.

This morning I listened to a friend who recently left Ukraine, I heard her describe the beauty of the cat everyone was petting in their bomb shelter, the kindness of a baker who gave out sweets to the kids of all refugees close to the Ukrainian border, and her overall strong sense of how everyone was trying to help each other out in trying to make things as bearable as possible while finding the beauty in the little things regardless. She also spoke of how terrifying it was to wake up to those first bombs, feeling paralyzed and not being capable to decide whether getting food while leaving her son in their flat unattended for a short period, or packing for them to get out of Ukraine immediately, should be the first thing to do. She seemed to simply need somebody telling her that it is totally normal to freeze (or fight or flee or fawn) in the face of a serious threat, and that she was not turning crazy on top of being a refugee. It seemed to me that a simple act of listening and telling her that all emotions serve a purpose, was the biggest gift I could give her in those trying days.

Thinking back into the many times I listened to team members sharing their stories, simply asking and listening is a powerful way to allow people to show up human, with all their emotions and know they are appreciated and seen. I know a number of people who seem to think that personal life and work life are somehow separate and should never mix. Makes me wonder if they think that human beings can simply turn their emotions off at the door to work (or during work hours in their own flat when they work from home those days). For me it has proven to be one of the most powerful trust building tools to simply listen in a non-judgmental way about the emotions my team members bring with them to work on any given day. It is not my job to “fix” anything there, simply to see them as the humans they are, and find ways to then still collaborate towards our joint goal the best way possible. Which may mean allowing somebody to take some time off and take care of themselves before starting to contribute again. Or letting them use work as the distraction they need from whatever else is going on in their life that day while people in the team know that they may need a bit more patience, a bit more support and a bit more slack in expectations than on other days. We’re all human, we all have good and bad days, we all bring our bodies and emotions with us to every day we choose to show up and work and contribute. By simply listening, we can show our team members that we care, and that we appreciate and accept every person as part of our shared humanity. Especially in times when direct attacks on humans dominate the headlines of our newspapers around the world. This is our call to be more loving, more caring, more trusting, more collaborative, more helpful, more understanding and more accepting with each other. And if you build products, build the ones that promote and encourage those behaviors!

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

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