A common scenario in my practice is the leader who’s unhappy with an employee’s performance or a team’s results and is struggling to find the right way to express their discontent. This generally isn’t the leader’s immediate response to a lack of progress or outright failure. My clients are aware that starting with curiosity and empathy helps employees overcome obstacles and deal with setbacks most effectively. But even the most patient leader eventually gets upset or angry—and yet merely venting these emotions will be cathartic in the moment and counterproductive in the long run. So what can be done?
I’ve written extensively on how to deliver critical feedback, and in this context, there’s one specific word that I encourage leaders to bear in mind: disappointed. When a leader feels compelled to speak up in these situations, rather than expressing frustration or impatience—essentially watered-down forms of anger—it’s often more effective to simply say, “I’m disappointed.” Why is this such a useful way for a leader to convey unhappiness? And why is it preferable to express frustration or impatience?
Emotions are attention magnets
A primary function that emotions serve is to alert us to potential opportunities and threats and to orient our attention accordingly. We may experience this as an unwelcome distraction, particularly if the emotional trigger is unpleasant, but that’s the point, as the late psychologist Daniel Wegner noted,
“It is clear that emotion should not be very susceptible to willful control. If we could turn off all our emotions, feel no pain, never laugh, not be gripped by fear or despair, stop being excited, and so on, we could easily end up dead… It is good, in other words, that when we feel an emotional state, our normal purposes and interests succumb to an influence beyond our control. The priority of emotions over will is important for our survival because it allows our plans to be interrupted by the immediate pressures of reality.”
The key for the unhappy leader is to convey their feelings of discontent in ways that will evoke an emotional reaction in their employees, capturing their attention and heightening “the immediate pressures of reality.” But it’s essential to evoke the right response–not just any feelings will do.
Not all emotions are created equal
Impulsive leaders just let their anger fly, and popular culture is full of adulation for such figures, from Gen. George Patton to Steve Jobs. One problem with this narrative is survivorship bias, which occurs “when a visible successful subgroup is mistaken as an entire group, due to the failure subgroup not being visible.” Patton and Jobs were, of course, absolute geniuses with regard to self-presentation. Most people lack the capacity for such finely calibrated displays of anger, and the vast majority who can’t control their angry impulses don’t rise to leadership roles—they go to prison.
Competent leaders appreciate the importance of emotion regulation and rather than simply get upset or angry with employees they might convey their impatience or frustration. Those are legitimate reactions, and I’m not suggesting that a leader should never express them. But they’re often less effective than disappointment, and this is a function of how we typically respond to different types of emotions.
The problem with anger, even in its watered-down forms, is that captures our attention because it signals a potential threat, but it simultaneously creates distress, causing us to distance ourselves from it (and the person expressing it) as soon as possible in order to down-regulate our threat response. The perennially frustrated or impatient leader won’t necessarily cause employees to bolt for the exits, but they’ll find it harder to build the close relationships that help teams weather bad times, and their employees’ loyalty will be contingent on continued success.
The power of strategic vulnerability
The next step beyond emotion regulation is what we might call emotion translation. Most anger is a protective response that accompanies deeper feelings of fear and anxiety, and this is what’s really underneath the leader’s reaction: They’re angry because they’re scared that small setbacks today are signs of larger failures to come. The competent leader can down-regulate their anger into frustration and impatience, but the truly effective leader can take this process a step further, tap into their underlying fear and anxiety, and translate those feelings into other forms that serve their purposes.
Expressions of vulnerability also reliably evoke an emotional response–empathy–and this may be a function of evolutionary psychology. The signal advantage possessed by early humans was their ability to cooperate in much larger groups than other primates, and some research suggests that this was made possible by an empathetic response to vulnerability. But just as not all emotions are created equal, nor are all expressions of vulnerability. Leaders don’t merely make decisions and allocate resources–they occupy a vitally important symbolic role. In most organizations we expect leaders to convey a requisite degree of strength and confidence, and in many circumstances, a leader’s open admission of fear and anxiety will undermine their ability to lead.
Just as I’m not suggesting that a leader should never express various forms of anger, neither am I suggesting that leaders should never acknowledge their fears and anxieties. But all effective communication must conform to the norms of the surrounding culture. In my practice, I encourage leaders to seek to influence their culture to make it more tolerant of expressions of vulnerability, and yet it’s not realistic–or even desirable–to assume that a leader’s unregulated expressions of fear and anxiety would be any more helpful than unregulated expressions of anger.
This is where a leader’s ability to say, “I’m disappointed” can be so powerful. It evokes an emotional response in employees, capturing their attention, and mobilizing them to take action. But it does not convey anger or generate distress, making it easier for employees to tolerate their emotional arousal and diminishing the risk that they’ll need to distance themselves from the situation. And it does convey vulnerability, in a regulated and measured form, making it more likely that employees will actually empathize with the leader and be motivated to work with them to resolve the problem without undermining faith in the leader’s capabilities.
To be clear, I distinguish between A) intentional and deliberate efforts to influence outcomes and B) manipulation. The latter entails misrepresenting or withholding material information and motivating people to act against their best interests. The former is what leaders must do every day.