None of Us Are Rational, So Smart Leadership Means Learning to Deal With Emotions

Emotions drive behavior in the office, often much more than we’re aware of. To be more effective leaders, we need to become more attuned to our own emotions as well to those of the people around us.

This may come as a surprise, but as leaders we’re not as rational as we think, and we’re not leading rational beings so much as leading their emotions. We all want to believe that we’re rational beings, but we’re not. We think we react rationally, but we don’t. And this means we expect our people to behave rationally, but they don’t. They can’t. That’s not how we’re wired; that’s not how they’re wired. Understanding this enables better leadership.

Emotions steer much of our behavior and daily decision making, often in unconscious ways. For example, across 26 countries, the amount of sunshine recorded on a given day and the stock market performance on that day are positively correlated. If we were truly rational beings, sunshine would not impact how financial markets operate. But it does, and so do many other factors, some that we are aware of but many that we are not.

It’s like an iceberg; the majority of the mass is hidden under the surface. And it’s this unseen mass that determines what direction the iceberg floats. Similarly, in situations of stress and pressure, people typically act less rationally, because they’re driven by emotions such as fear or anxiety.

Give them space

Paul Zollinger-Read, chief medical officer at the UK-based global healthcare organization BUPA practiced medicine before joining BUPA. His experience of working with patients, who are stressed and anxious because of their illness, has proven very valuable for him in supporting his employees in BUPA when they are under pressure.

“I have learned that when conflicts or collaboration issues arise in professional teams, it is often really not about the subject matter, but rather the emotional state of the people in the team. When we feel under pressure, we act with less mental clarity, and problems arise.” Because the problem is not the subject matter, but the emotional state of people, Paul focuses on that rather than on the perceived problem. “Giving people’s emotions space, attention, and care, can solve a lot,” he shared with us.

To be clear, emotions are neither good nor bad. Emotions have a purpose and are essential for normal human functioning and socializing. And as leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the role of emotions, so we can connect with our people, not just on strategy and tasks but also on a fundamental human level. It’s only when we create emotional resonance between ourselves and our people that we enable true connectedness. Whether we’re aware of it — and whether we want to accept it or not — true engagement happens when people feel connected on an emotional level. Why? Because emotions are both universal and contagious.

Emotions are universal

Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the best-selling book Emotions Revealed, is arguably the world’s leading expert on emotions. For years, he traveled the world researching human emotions in all cultures. He concluded that everyone has five universal emotions — enjoyment, fear, disgust, sadness, and anger — regardless of genes, upbringing, or culture.

In other words, when it comes to emotions, we are all alike. Ekman spent years developing an “atlas” of emotions to support others in being able to understand and navigate them better. According to this atlas, the five universal emotions can be experienced to different degrees.

For instance, anger can move from annoyance to frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, and end in fury. Additionally, our emotions serve an evolutionary purpose. Anger provides us with the drive to deal with difficult situations. Sadness is a cry for help. Fear makes us flee, freeze, or fight to avoid danger.

Ekman also found that our emotions present themselves in our expressions through incredibly rapid facial movements. These facial expressions, called micro-expressions, last somewhere between one-fifteenth and one-twentieth of a second and are exceedingly difficult to consciously control. But although these expressions may only last an instant, other people pick up on them and are influenced by them consciously or unconsciously. Thus we carry our emotions on our face, no matter how much we may try to conceal them. These emotions are expressed through the 43 muscles in our face. Enjoyment requires the fewest muscles and anger the most.

Emotions are contagious

In the office, our mood impacts the moods of those around us, whether we’re aware of it or not. Research has found that people in the same meeting end up sharing moods within two hours, regardless of whether that mood is good or bad. It happens because of a group of neurons in our frontal lobe called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are activated when we see others taking action or experiencing a feeling. These actions or feelings are then reflected inside our own brains. When we see someone smile, we’re compelled to smile. When a baby laughs, we laugh. In the workplace, mirror neurons connect us through our shared neurological experiences. When one person in the office is criticized unjustly, everyone feels it. When one person receives deserved praise, we all experience it. We’re deeply connected in this way, much more than many of us truly appreciate.

As a leader, your emotions have a bigger impact on others than do the emotions of the people you lead. Daniel Goleman, science journalist and author wrote: “The continual interplay of mirror neurons among members of a group creates a kind of emotional soup, with everyone adding his or her flavor. But it’s the leader who adds the strongest seasoning. Why? Everyone watches the boss.” It’s no wonder that a moody leader creates stressful and fearful environments, while a happy leader makes the team see everything in a more positive light. An upbeat leader has the most positive impact on productivity. That’s something to smile about.

Leading by recognizing, and acknowledging people’s emotions allows for true connectedness and following. The question is, how do we do it? In many leadership training books and programs, the answer is empathy. But empathy can be detrimental in leadership.

Managing emotions

Emotions are just energy in motion, in our body and our mind. There is nothing inherently good or bad, positive or negative about emotions. When we’re mindful, we’re aware of these emotions — this energy — as it plays out during the day. Being aware of these emotions is the first step to managing them.

A natural human reaction to emotions is to either suppress them or act them out. Suppressing our emotions is like trying to hold down the lid on a boiling pot of water. At some point, it will boil over. And in the process, it drains our energy and narrows our perspective. Acting out our emotions, whether aggressively or passive-aggressively, might feel good in the moment, but in the long run, it usually leads to disappointment, regret, or shame. Think of emotional suppression and acting out as being on opposite sides of a seesaw. Putting your weight on either end throws everything off balance.

Because emotions are fueled by our reactions to them, the greater our reaction, the more energy our emotions build. The mindful approach to emotions is to cut short the reactions of suppression or acting out by developing the ability to embrace our emotions as they arise. This means looking our emotions in the eye and not reacting to them. Facing our emotions requires courage and mental strength, the courage to endure the discomfort of raw emotion and the strength to stay with this discomfort as long as it lasts.

Emotional objectivity

This in turn requires a healthy level of selflessness and non-attachment to our emotions. If we can distance ourselves from our emotions, we can observe them more objectively. With training, observing our emotions can be like watching a movie: You’re not the movie, and the movie is not you. In the same way, your emotion is not you, and you’re not the emotion. You may have anger, but you are not anger. The anger is just a part of your current experience.

Another core reason selflessness can help us better manage our emotions is because we can avoid taking things personally. When something upsetting happens to us, our ego has a natural orientation to look for someone to blame. But although bad things can happen to us, we are the only one that can control our reactions. You cannot make me angry. You can do something that I react to with anger, but ultimately, how I react is not in your control. I alone can choose how to respond.

If we face emotions neutrally and without ego, they lose their grip. It may take seconds or minutes, but it passes. Managing our emotions like this, over time, dismantles their power.

Mark Twain once said, “I have lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Emotions seem so real, so concrete. In truth, they’re like bubbles waiting to be popped. And when we learn to pop them — to manage our own emotions — we’re better able to connect with others rather than merely react to their emotions. And instead of having just empathy, we wisely use it to respond with compassion.

Empathy and compassion

Empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them as well. Compassion is the ability to understand others’ perspectives and use that as a catalyst for supportive action.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner describes the difference as follows: “To show empathy is to see someone suffering under the weight of a great burden and respond by putting the same burden on yourself. Compassion is the act of alleviating the person from the burden.” The two have very different outcomes.

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Helena Gottschling, chief human resources officer of the Royal Bank of Canada, shared with us how she uses emotional resonance and compassion to support her people. In the recent past, a leader came to her, upset about a decision that had negatively impacted him. He felt that he’d been treated unfairly — and he was very vocal about his concerns. Helena could have responded by justifying the decision, offering a detailed, rational argument for the change. But as she explained to us, “In that moment, I knew he wouldn’t have reacted well to an explanation. He was caught in the grip of his emotions.”

So instead, she listened intently to him. She wanted to understand his perspective and give him the space to feel heard. She was careful not to offer any indication that she agreed with his arguments, while still demonstrating a genuine concern for his feelings. After giving him time and space to express his frustration, she invited him to take some time to look at the situation from another point of view.

“I asked him to consider other people’s perspective, to think about the team expectations. Then I assured him we’d follow up after he had some time to reflect.”

By resonating with the leader’s emotions, Helena was able to diffuse a passionate, overly charged situation. Then, by applying compassion, she was able to provide him with a concrete next step toward trying to actively solve the situation.

Emotional resonance and compassion are invaluable for leadership and relating to others, particularly in challenging work situations. Rather than taking on others’ emotions and problems, with compassion you can help them diffuse the issues and move on.

When we manage our own emotions and manage to resonate with those whom we lead, we enhance connections and engagement. In subsequent chapters, we will look in greater detail at how to lead others with mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion.

Become emotionally intelligent

  • Consider what biases — conscious or unconscious—you may have about people you work with; pick one that you are going to make a conscious effort to overcome.
  • Challenge yourself to be more curious, ask more questions, and consider other possibilities and perspectives; experiment with having more of a beginner’s mind in your daily work.
  • Consider what emotions you regularly bring to the work environment; reflect on how these emotions influence your colleagues.
  • The next time you experience a difficult emotion, pause and face it; find the courage to be uncomfortable with the discomfort until you are ready to consider an appropriate response.
  • Consider the downsides of empathy and how you can be more aware of avoiding the trap that you know you are susceptible to.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results. Copyright 2018 Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. All rights reserved.

Jacqueline Carter

With a Master of Science in Organizational Behaviour and over 20 years of experience supporting organizations through large scale change, Jacqueline has held a wide range of leadership and consulting roles across a range of industries including transportation, oil and gas, insurance and government. Jacqueline has many years of personal experience with mind training and over the past 10 years has focussed on embedding mindfulness practices into daily corporate life.

Rasmus Hougaard

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and managing director of Potential Project, the global leader in customized leadership and organizational training programs based on mindfulness. With a proven track record of enhancing individual and collective performance, resilience and creativity, Potential Project works with Fortune 500 companies such as Accenture, Nike, KPMG, Microsoft, EY and Sony among others across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Rasmus has led more than 1,500 workshops and programs and is recognized as a leading international authority on training the mind to be more focused, effective and clear in an organizational context. He is co-author of the book entitled One Second Ahead – Enhance Your Performance with Mindfulness published by Palgrave in 2015.

Rasmus is a regular contributor to renowned publications such as Business Insider and Harvard Business Review for his thought leadership and knowledge. His next book is called The Mind of the Leader – How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Organization for Extraordinary Results and was published by Harvard Business Press in March 2018. The book shares stories from executives of some of the most successful organizations in the world, including Accenture, Microsoft, Google, Marriott and Cisco, and explains how those companies are working to create people-centric organizations with leaders who are bringing their whole self to work.