‘U ok hun?’ Leadership with Emotion

This is a write-up of my #TLCWorcs18 workshop on 3rd February 2018.  You can download my presentation here.

I have spent many years trying to ‘get a grip’ on my emotional self.  I grew up a painfully shy child.  Crying was pretty much my default answer to any tricky situation or challenge.  As a teenager and young adult, I had resigned myself to a life as an ’emotional’ person and I truly felt that this would hold me back.  I would never have a large social circle because I felt too self-conscious and I would never be a ‘leader’ as I was far too emotionally fragile to handle the pressure.  Then I became a teacher…  I developed the characteristic teacher ‘rhino skin’ and I worked on my resilience.  I didn’t stop feeling, but I got better at masking.  Then I became a middle leader… aged 26… far too young (in retrospect).

My first few years as a middle leader were pretty miserable, if I’m honest.  I was teaching a full timetable and juggling the demands of the role.  My ability to continue to mask my emotions was starting to wane and I beat myself up about my inability to keep  it together.  I wanted to appear competent and in control.  I mistakenly thought this meant showing no emotion.

A few years ago, I did a leadership qualification and this opened my eyes to emotional intelligence.  Since then, I have developed an interest in emotional literacy and EQ.  It has made me realise that the notion of being ‘too emotional’ for any leadership role is nonsense.  Emotions are constructed by chemical reactions that occur in response to our circumstances or environment.  They are necessary for social bonding and, ultimately, in survival.  When we describe ourselves or others as being ‘too emotional’ (and sadly, this is a fear held by more women than men), what we really mean is that it’s the expression of emotion that might be inappropriate. The emotion itself is not the problem, it’s whether or not we acknowledge it, name it and manage it that is the real issue.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

One tool I have found useful in developing my emotional literacy is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion.    Plutchik identified 8 basic emotions and 8 advanced emotions that are each composed of two basic emotions.  What we notice on the wheel is that each of the 8 basic emotions, radiate out to ‘lesser’ emotions (by which we mean less intense), for example ‘terror’ (a basic emotion) may begin as apprehension, before becoming fear and then ultimately becoming terror.  The nearer the centre of the ‘wheel’ we get the more intense the emotion.  The most useful application of this tool has been in helping me name and acknowledge my emotional state before any negative, or less helpful, emotions develop and intensify.  Being literate in the range of emotions I experience has enabled me to recognise, acknowledge and name my emotions.  Here’s an example:  If I am nervous about a presentation, I can name the ‘feeling’ I am experiencing.  I’m not fearful (yet) as the situation presents no danger.  I’ve done it before, after all – it was fine.  If I’ve done it before, I can do it again.  This isn’t fear – this is apprehension.  My palms might be sweating, or my heart might be racing, but I’m not afraid.  I am apprehensive and that’s ok.  Who wouldn’t be? By acknowledging, naming and reframing, I can manage my  emotions effectively.  Being able to talk myself down is one thing, being able to do this for others is potentially powerful.


Lessons in Emotional Intelligence for Leaders (some things I’ve picked up in my reading and through my experience).

  • Always bring your whole-self to work – be authentic.
  • Don’t try to hide your emotions (see above).
  • If you’re having a shit day, own it! Everyone will know anyway!
  • Better to be open and honest, than have your team walking on egg-shells around you (that will annoy you even more).
  • If it’s that bad (emotional trauma, grief etc), stay away – you do yourself no favours by being a martyr – take a mental health day.
  • You can’t manage the emotions of others.
  • Everyone is responsible for their own emotions.
  • Acknowledge and show compassion.
  • Listen and ask questions – get to the root of it.
  • Don’t assume it’s your fault!
  • Don’t add your guilt to their difficulty.
  • Don’t tell people how to feel.
  • Invest time in relationships.
  • Learn the language of emotion.
  • Become emotionally literate.
  • Listen to your own emotions and question – what am I really feeling and why?

We have been conditioned to think that emotion equals weakness in the workplace.  We have been conditioned to believe that fear, a lack of confidence and vulnerability will hold us back.  We have been conditioned to believe that volume and voice count.  This has not been done by anyone to anyone. This has been created by society at large.

We are all emotional beings.  You cannot be ‘too emotional’, but at the same time we are all responsible for our emotions.  The most powerful thing a leader can do is invest time in developing their emotional literacy and EQ.  If we can become more emotionally self-aware, it follows that we can be more aware of the emotions of others.  If we are more self aware we can self-regulate more effectively.  If we can self-regulate, we can manage our own reactions to other people’s emotional state.  All in all, if we can all become just a little more emotionally intelligent, we can build stronger and healthier relationships.

That can’t be bad, can it?


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