Only human: The value of showing your emotions to your team

Only human: The value of showing your emotions to your team

Keep your distance. Don’t let it get to you. Always be professional.

Regardless of the industry, practically every manager has been told at one time or another to never be overly emotional in front of his or her team. The reason is most likely that traditionally, showing too much emotion has been considered a sign of weakness and therefore something leaders should avoid at all cost.

However, in recent years, psychologists are slowly but surely changing their point of view, and the value of tapping into your emotions when you’re in a leadership position is becoming more and more apparent.

 Emotional intelligence: An essential leadership trait

As Andrea Ovans points out in her Harvard Business Review article titled “How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill,” emotional intelligence is a relatively new concept. Coined in 1990 by Mayer and Salovey, emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, and regulate your own and others emotions.

Note that the use of “and others” needs to be interpreted correctly. It doesn’t refer to some covert form of manipulation. Rather, it means you have the ability to encourage people to take their emotional cues from you. It shows them that you’re a living, breathing, and most importantly feeling human being, just like them. This can be highly useful to get your employees more engaged and motivated to work toward good outcomes.

Consider the following scenario:

You’ve called your team together to discuss a new project. It’s with a higher budget than you’ve ever had and the product is in a field you’ve never covered before, but if you succeed, it will not only be a huge coup for your company; it will also make a positive difference in millions of people’s lives. Understandably, your employees are nervous and intimidated, due to both the newness of the project and the high stakes involved. So how can you use emotions to your advantage in this situation?

Open with an emotional story. Instead of diving into the possible challenges of the project or assigning specific tasks to each team member, Megan Andrews advises in her SkillsYouNeed article “How to Appeal to Your Employees’ Emotions” to tell a story that makes people feel. In this situation, you could talk about someone whose life will change for the better as a result of the project. For example, if you’re creating a marketing plan for a new diabetes treatment, you could tell your team how the product will enable your father, a Type II diabetes patient, to better control his insulin levels—and as a result, enjoy more activities with his grandchildren.

This approach not only makes the situation personal; it also inspires people to want to make a difference. And the ability to inspire people is one of the most important skills any leader can possess.

What to keep in mind

There’s a range of emotions you can show, for example joy when you get good results, sympathy if a team member is having a hard time, and disappointment when something didn’t go as planned. You can show excitement and even (to a certain extent) anxiety. All of these emotions are appropriate. However, there are a number of things to bear in mind:

  • Always be authentic. Pretending to feel an emotion you’re not experiencing is likely to backfire. Unless you have the acting chops of a Meryl Streep or a Leonardo di Caprio, chances are your people will know you’re not being genuine—and that can cost you their trust.
  • Contain yourself. You can express joy, sadness, and excitement, so long as you make sure you do so appropriately. Think dinner with the in-laws, not dugout with the team. Always respect your employees’ personal space, and never use profanity.
  • Be wary of frustration and anger. Sure, you’re likely to encounter both of these emotions during your career as a manager. Yet these emotions are often misunderstood and/or misdirected. When you express either of them, you run the risk of an employee thinking the negative energy is directed at him or her, and that can have a whole range of destructive consequences, including accusations of workplace bullying.

Showing your emotions to your team can be a highly valuable strategy to inspire and engage them. Just make sure that you’re always in control of your feelings so they don’t cause unwanted consequences.