3 Ways Emotional Leadership Will Strengthen Your Team

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.
Photo Credit: Recent Magazine Flickr via Compfight cc

Leadership Is About Emotion

Make a list of the 5 leaders you most admire. They can be from business, social media, politics, technology, the sciences, any field. Now ask yourself why you admire them. The chances are high that your admiration is based on more than their accomplishments, impressive as those may be. I’ll bet that everyone on your list reaches you on an emotional level.

This ability to reach people in a way that transcends the intellectual and rational is the mark of a great leader. They all have it. They inspire us. It’s a simple as that. And when we’re inspired we tap into our best selves and deliver amazing work.

So, can this ability to touch and inspire people be learned? No and yes. The truth is that not everyone can lead, and there is no substitute for natural talent. Honestly, I’m more convinced of this now – I’m in reality about the world of work and employee engagement. But for those who fall somewhat short of being a natural born star (which is pretty much MANY of us), leadership skills can be acquired, honed and perfected. And when this happens your chances of engaging your talent increases from the time they walk into your culture.

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s Take A Look At Tools That Allow For Talent To Shine:

Emotional intelligence. Great leaders understand empathy, and have the ability to read people’s (sometimes unconscious, often unstated) needs and desires. This allows them to speak to these needs and, when at all possible, to fulfill them. When people feel they are understood and empathized something, they respond PERIOD and a bond is formed.

Continuous learning. Show me a know-it-all and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t have a clue about being human. Curiosity and an insatiable desire to always do better is the mark of a great leader. They are rarely satisfied with the status quo, and welcome new knowledge and fresh (even if challenging) input. It’s all about investing in yourself.

Contextualize. Great leaders respond to each challenge with a fresh eye. They know that what worked in one situation may be useless in another. Before you act, make sure you understand the specifics of the situation and tailor your actions accordingly.

Let Go. Too many people think leadership is about control. In fact, great leaders inspire and then get out of the way. They know that talented people don’t need or want hovering managers. Leadership is about influence, guidance, and support, not control. Look for ways to do your job and then get out of the way so that people can do theirs.

Honesty.  Not a week goes by that we don’t hear about a so-called leader losing credibility because he or she was dishonest. Often this is because of pressure to try and “measure up” and it’s not coming from a place of being real – often this relates to fear of not being accepted for your true self. We live in age of extraordinary transparency, which is reason enough to always be true to your core – your mission will be revealed, your motivations will show by your behaviors. But it goes way beyond this. It’s an issue that sets an example and elevates an organization. If you have a reputation for honesty, it will be a lot easier to deliver bad news and face tough challenges. Are you inspiring people from your heart? 

Kindness and respect. Nice leaders (people) don’t finish last. They finish first again and again. Ignorance and arrogance are leadership killers. They’re also a mark of insecurity. Treating everyone with a basic level respect is an absolute must trait of leadership. And kindness is the gift that keeps on giving back. Of course, there will be people who prove they don’t deserve respect and they must be dealt with. But that job will be made much easier, and will have far less impact on your organization, if you have a reputation for kindness, honesty and respect.

Collaboration. People’s jobs and careers are integral to their lives. The more your organization can make them a partner, the more they will deliver amazing results. This means, to the greatest extent possible, communicating your organization’s strategies, goals and challenges. This builds buy-in, and again is a mark of respect. People won’t be blindsided (which is a workplace culture killer) by setbacks if they’re in the loop.

Partner with your people. As I said above, people’s careers are a big part of their lives. That seems like a no-brainer, but leaders should have it front and center at all times. Find out what your employees’ career goals are and then do everything you can to help them reach them. Even if it means they will eventually leave your organization. You will gain happy, productive employees who will work with passion and commitment, and tout your company far and wide. This an opportunity to brand your greatness.

Leadership is both an art and a science. These tools are guidelines, not rigid rules. Everyone has to develop his or her own individual leadership style. Make these tools a part of your arsenal and use them well as you strive to reach people on an emotional level. Be Human. This Matters.

A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 12/15/13