Of all the professional panels you’ve attended, how many began with a hug? It may surprise you, but that’s exactly what happened at a recent SXSW session on emotional leadership.

The purpose of the hug was to remind us all that emotions in the work environment are not only OK, but also might make things better. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The How of Happiness,” a 2015 study at Penn State University found that people who were assigned to give or receive five hugs a day over the course of four weeks reported feeling happier than a control group without hug assignments.

It all comes down to connecting through empathy. My team at Rocksauce Studios has instituted empathy as a core value, and we take it seriously when evaluating the needs of our team — and, of course, when engaging in the hiring process.

Leading From Your Gut

Emotional leadership begins with a careful nurturing of one’s own emotional intelligence. Recognizing and managing your moods, controlling outbursts and frustration, and knowing how to manage or redirect impulses that you recognize as potentially damaging are fundamental skills that can impact every area of your life.

Being able to choose how to think, feel, and act in a given situation is critical to relationship development, enthusiasm, and persistence — all vital skills for any leader. Perhaps the most critical piece of emotional intelligence is empathy: the ability to recognize the moods and feelings of others and connect with them in a way they identify as genuine.

Emotionally intelligent leaders have the self-awareness to leverage their intuitive and empathetic skills in a way that enhances team unity and determination. We all know emotional intelligence in the workplace when we see it: the salesperson who always closes the deal because customers can sense that his caring is genuine, the manager who can diffuse the most heated situation with ease, or the leader whose connections with her staff members are so strong that she can inspire them to do almost anything.

More Than a Feeling

When you’re leading from your emotionally intelligent center, you can approach your team with increased insight, sometimes even sensing things before they have to be expressed. Connecting with your team on a deeper level can be draining, but the strength and unity that result are definitely worth the effort.

Our leaders conduct regular one-on-ones with team members so we’re better able to understand what’s going on with our teammates on an emotional level. This knowledge allows us to align their state of mind with our goals as a company.

Being emotionally keyed in to our employees builds trust within teams, which then encourages creative, independent work. We all know that our employees don’t want hovering managers, but it can be hard to let go of a project that you feel deeply about. Knowing that you carefully hired competent, skilled adults who are developing their own emotional intelligence at work can help you be more hands-off.

An effective leader is supportive rather than controlling, empowering employees by showing confidence in them. This trust-based leadership can have many benefits, from improving talent retention to providing valuable experiences for employees as they learn to work without being micromanaged.

Reaching Out by Reaching In

How do you practice emotional leadership on a day-to-day basis? Here are three steps people can take to move themselves and their teams toward a more emotionally intelligent work environment.

  1. Be where you are.

One of the panelists at SXSW, Kristi VandenBosch, acknowledged that emotional leadership can be difficult. She suggested that attendees “do things that are uncomfortable.” She added that this vulnerable state — of asking people how they’re doing and really listening to their answers — might be exhausting, but “it makes for a more emotionally connected leader.”

This type of listening requires your attention to remain fully “with” the employee or group you’re engaging at that moment. This kind of presence breeds connections and shows your team that you have their best interests in mind, enabling them to offer you the same attention and respect when you need it.

  1. Be an emotional contagion.

Anyone who’s ever smiled because someone in the room was happy knows how contagious emotions can be. Your impact in the workplace, positive or negative, can be determined by your emotional state. Particularly when you’re the boss, the emotions you carry can set the mood for everyone around you.

If you’re having a bad day or feeling overwhelmingly anxious, consider putting yourself in quarantine until you’re in a better state. On the flip side, if you recognize that you have extra positive energy, take some time to be with your team. It would be the perfect day to attend an extra meeting or check in with an employee who seems to be struggling.

  1. Be a caring coach.

Coaching your direct reports in a one-on-one style can profoundly impact your emotional connection with them. Set aside intentional meetings that allow you to work together on goal development and strategies. Every team is made up of individuals, and each individual needs to know he or she matters — both to you and to the company as a whole.

Retaining high-quality team members is an ongoing challenge for executives today. One of my team’s core values is passion: passion for creativity, passion for honesty, and passion for our team. This passion thrives in a place of emotional connection, and every leader should look forward to continuing to grow a workplace where that connection keeps his or her teammates happy at work.
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