The Influence of Emotions in Leadership

By Silke Zanker
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How comfortable are you with your co-workers’ emotions? How comfortable are you with your own?

Emotions make us human. They have a strong impact on the success, collaboration and engagement of our teams. Research clearly shows that we are all critically affected by our emotions at the workplace. It also shows that the negative influence of frustration has a stronger effect on performance than the positive influence of optimism.

Emotions strongly influence decision-making, creativity and interpersonal relationships. And yet many leaders are uncomfortable with the topic of emotions or are unaware of its influence and impact on leadership, organizational culture and performance.

Conscious, courageous leaders are aware of the power that emotions hold. They harness it and make it work for them.

Let me be clear. Bringing emotions to your leadership is NOT the same as being emotional. Being “emotional” describes someone who is “sensitive” or reacts to circumstances in an intense way — when one takes things personal that are not personal. Being able to process emotions and using the powerful information they contain is a way to improve your capacity to look at the world, take action in it, and accomplish the results you are striving for. If you ignore your and other people’s emotions and the power they hold, then you set yourself up for unpleasant surprises.

The philosophy of Conscious Business regards emotional mastery as a meta mindset that underlies all other mindsets. Emotions deeply influence how we perceive the world and whether we are able, in a given moment, to choose responsibility over victimhood or curiosity over the need for certainty. The key is to consciously engage with emotions and leverage the power and energy they have. This means to engage with the power of all emotions — the so-called positive and negative ones — be it happiness, excitement, gratitude, pride, sadness, fear, anger or guilt.

Over 20 years ago, Daniel Goleman already declared emotional intelligence (EI) as a key competence of leaders:“After analyzing 181 competence models from 121 organizations, I found that 67 percent of key abilities were related to EI. Compared to IQ, EI mattered twice as much.”

Emotions arise from the stories we tell ourselves about what we observe and experience. These stories then consciously or unconsciously influence our actions. The more aware we become of our ability to influence our interpretation of a certain situation (i.e., the story we tell ourselves), the more we can direct our actions.

Have you noticed in emotionally charged situations that our good intentions often go out the window? We know how we would like to behave and show up, but we feel so triggered in the moment that we don’t care about reason or find we are not able to choose an empowering response. Instead, we react.

You can read hundreds of books or attend seminars, but emotional mastery is not about an intellectual understanding of how to lead or have difficult conversations. It is about being aware and equanimous in the moment and choosing a helpful response.

People work differently with emotions, and we recognize three different responses to emotions arising:explosion, repression or expansion of awareness, and management of the emotion. I am sure we all have experienced the harm it does when we or someone else “explodes” because of a strong, negative emotion. For the person showing the strong emotion, it may feel like a relief in the moment, but consequences for relationships and the outcomes they are trying to achieve are mostly negative. And after a short while, it doesn’t feel that good anymore either.

On the other hand, the more we try to suppress or control our emotions, the more control they have over our thoughts and behavior, not allowing us to operate from a higher level of consciousness and leadership. The secret is not to control our emotions but to balance, manage and align our emotions with who we are and how we want to lead. It’s key to productively use the energy the emotions carry to our advantage and become aware of the message it sends us so we can act in a productive way.

Let me share a five-step framework on how to increase your emotional mastery and leverage emotions in a conscious way:

  1. Become aware of the emotion. Feel it and label it. Do I feel anger or sadness? Happiness or excitement?
  2. Unconditionally accept your emotions and those of others. Don’t argue with what is. Accept without judgment and create space for the emotion.
  3. Regulate self and respond effectively to others’ emotions. Expand your awareness. Learn to respond and not react. Practicing equanimity and being able to use the power that emotions carry is a key element of emotional mastery.
  4. Inquire and analyze the story underlying the emotion. Be curious. Every emotion carries a message.
  5. Constructively express the emotion. Reframe and tell yourself a different, empowering story. Productively advocate for your own emotion. Productively inquire into other’s emotions.

Try this the next time you experience a strong emotion arising. Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, focus and spend a few moments to harness its power. Then consciously direct this power to support the people around you and the task at hand. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll feel better, too.

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