You’ve heard by now that you need to be “transparent” and “authentic” and to “bring your whole self” to work. More often than not, these phrases are shorthand for expressing your feelings. But while it’s true that you need an emotionally intelligent approach both to build a great work culture and to advance your own career, there’s more to it than just wearing your feelings on your sleeve.
Showing emotional savvy isn’t only about candor, though that’s certainly part of it. Properly channeling your emotions in the workplace is a powerful leadership skill. With that in mind, here’s how to calibrate and convey five of the most common emotions you’re likely to experience at work.
In his 2012 book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni argues that good leaders show their vulnerability by using expressions like “I screwed up,” “I need help,” and “Your idea is better than mine.” He’s right that humility and vulnerability matter. But there’s a fine line between sharing your insecurities and undercutting yourself as a leader.
For example, if you tell your coworker you’re accepted a speaking gig because you want to work on your speaking skills–public speaking has never come easily to you–that’s sharing a vulnerability in a way that supports, rather than undermines, your leadership; your colleague will probably admire your courage and feel touched by your honesty. But if you get up in public to give a speech and tell the audience you’re not comfortable with public speaking, that undercuts your ability and lowers their expectations.
Showing empathy brings you closer to everyone you come into contact with, but it’s possible to go overboard. There are times when conveying empathy in certain ways can actually weaken your ability to lead.
Suppose a team member is having a crisis in his personal life and has been seen in the bar around the corner drinking heavily after work with his staff. The best form of empathy is to help your team member work through the problem without enabling his behavior. Speak with him privately and offer to connect him with any counseling and support offered by your company’s HR department. Make yourself available for one-on-one conversation. But if the destructive habits persist, you may need to discipline or fire the individual.
It’s one thing to empathize with difficulties your team members may be having, but it’s another to let that compromise your leadership or tacitly encourage a toxic work culture. It takes emotional intelligence to try and understand someone’s point of view without adopting it yourself.
Many companies try to create happy work environments through free food, games, and fun rituals means to blow off steam. But some of those experiences can create a giddy kind of joy, which can sometimes lead to an atmosphere dominated by extroverts who aren’t focusing enough on their work. Too much loud, exuberant activity can distract and alienate people who are trying to get things done.
A better way to cultivate and express joy at work is simply to share your excitement about the work you’re doing with your team. Emphasize the fun of collaborating. This joy is contagious, and because it instills a sense of purpose, dedication, and fulfillment in others, it won’t tilt into a constant party atmosphere.
Anger emerges from frustration, anxiety, and conflict, but yelling and screaming is never the right response. The first step toward channelling your anger in an emotionally intelligent way is simply to step back and ask yourself whether the situation warrants such negative feelings. If on closer consideration it doesn’t, then try to let it go.
This usually means removing yourself temporarily from the source of your frustration so you can get a little clarity. After you’ve done that, find words that let you express your concerns to whoever’s responsible in an assertive but not aggressive way. Avoid accusatory language, and focus on the solution rather than the problem. It’s actually okay to get angry at work every now and then, but venting never helps.
Fear is another inevitable emotion you’ll encounter at work–usually due to awkward interpersonal situations. Maybe you’re afraid to ask your boss for a promotion or to press for a client to finally tell you if you’ve got a deal. So you hem and haw, get tongue-tied, or decide not to broach the uncomfortable subject at all.
The better approach is to acknowledge your anxiety and recognize that you’re going to feel uncomfortable, but that there are other things about the situation worth paying attention to as well: the desired outcome, for example, or facts on your side. When your fear stems from confronting a higher-up, remember that title and rank don’t define leadership. The more you speak up and show confidence in the face of authority, the more leadership you’ll be able to project despite your underlying nervousness.
Emotional intelligence involves dealing with our emotions so that they serve–rather than undermine–your leadership. Don’t try to “manage” or suppress them, but if you can pause long enough to consider how to communicate your feelings, you and your coworkers will always be better off.