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What to do if you’re a leader who doesn’t have a good poker face

If your team is regularly observing your frustration, that can be a problem.

What to do if you’re a leader who doesn’t have a good poker face
[Source photo: Kenny Timmer/Unspalsh]

Work can be frustrating. You may have a team member who doesn’t do their job properly, a difficult manager, an uptick in sloppy mistakes from your team, or difficulty clearly articulating issues to your direct reports. And if you lack a “poker face,” it’s possible that your team can see frustration and anger on your face. That can be a problem, undermining your credibility and your team’s motivation.  

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People are drawn to enthusiasm and goodwill; they respond well to facial expressions that communicate those sentiments. However, if you’re constantly frowning or looking agitated, you can stymie your teams’ good feelings. How aware are you of your facial expressions?

If you wear all your emotions on your face, here are some ways to gauge—and improve—the effect you have on your team:

Understand your triggers

Everyone has triggers that activate unpleasant emotions. Ask yourself: What people, circumstances, or interactions agitate you? How does your expression register that agitation? Ask a trusted mentor or colleague to reflect back what they see. With some analysis, you can figure out what sets you off—and how others experience your agitation.

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Practice your facial expressions in front of a mirror

To understand how your facial expressions affect others, you must first know what you telegraph to others when you’re not worked up, or “neutral.” Stand in front of a mirror when you feel calm. How do you set your mouth? How do your eyes look? Understand how your face feels and looks when you are calm. When you’re in a meeting and feel your expression may be silently communicating your frustration, remember how a neutral expression feels—and return there. 

Call a time-out

Sometimes you won’t be able to hide your facial expressions; however, you can mindfully interrupt your frustration. Take this example—you’re in a meeting and your team members aren’t prepared to your satisfaction. You feel your frustration mounting. Before getting angry, try this: stand up, end the meeting, and move the meeting to another time. When you’ve cooled down (perhaps when you’re back at your desk), clearly communicate what needs to be done before the next meeting. The goal is not to let your emotions override the work that needs to be done. 

Aim for progress over perfection

Remember that you don’t have to have a perfect “poker face.” Your frustrations can reveal themselves in your expression before you mindfully check in (especially if you’re new to the practice of returning to “neutral”). Remember that we are all human. Aim to more mindfully handle your emotions, so that you don’t broadcast them to your teams—next time.

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Assume positive intent

If you’re perpetually frustrated about your team’s performance, you may need a perspective shift. Rather than view them as always falling short, assume positive intent on behalf of the people who report to you. Begin telling yourself a new story: that errors are not intentional or malicious, and that your teams intend to do their best. Assume that everyone wants to do the right thing for the company and the team. If you get into this thinking habit, the tenor of your work day will change; your expressions will telegraph goodwill, and your team members will respond positively.

 Slow down

If you feel your agitation mounting, slow down. Don’t continue down the path of emotionally “revving up.” Take mindful, deep breaths. From a calm, centered place, you as a leader will have more control over how you communicate with your teams and how they perceive you. You’ll also be able to make better decisions. 

If your emotions often get the best of you, it is possible to gain control and more mindfully communicate with your team. Understand your triggers and how you can consciously respond to them. Focus on communicating clearly with your team, assuming everyone is doing their best. When you feel more peaceful, you and your team will be able to do your best work.

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Anne Sugar is an executive coach and keynote speaker who has advised top leaders in verticals such as biotech, technology, and finance. Anne serves as an executive coach for Harvard Business School Executive Education and has guest lectured at MIT.


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