In the last two weeks, four people I work with in one capacity or another have cried in my office or in a virtual meeting room with me. This is a personal record. In fact, I started to think the cause was me – my ego is still relatively functional, it would seem. They all became emotional for different reasons. One thing they had in common was they immediately apologised afterwards. It has occurred to me since that this is something we do whenever we express strong emotion. What is wrong with this picture?
From an early age, we are told to control our emotions. We are told, “boys don’t cry”. We’re told to “stop crying” – as a parent, I have been guilty of this myself. If we are out in public with a screaming child, we want the wailing to stop so we are not embarrassed in front of other adults.
These negative messages around the expression of emotion can have long-term consequences. For example, the normalisation of a stiff upper lip, an “I’m ok, you’re ok” approach to life and work can make it feel socially unacceptable to display anything other than positive emotions. A culture of toxic positivity, where everyone has to be ok all the time, can make people who are already struggling feel ever more isolated and alone.
From a leadership perspective, we need to be positive for our staff. We set the emotional tone for the organisation. If we are downbeat, that will become the pervasive emotional state for our teams – emotional contagion is the term psychologists use.
If we are always peppy and hugely upbeat and don’t acknowledge the presence of any negative thought or emotion, what does that tell our people? It means that it is not acceptable for them to entertain or raise doubts or concerns. Very few people are constantly knocking it out of the park from an emotional equilibrium perspective. We all have doubts. We all have “sad days”, as Adam Grant put it in a recent Work/Life podcast.
So, how do we get this balance right? By being authentic. By framing challenges positively but acknowledging the fact that they will require struggle. That effort is required – something that people with fixed mindsets may not be willing to accept.
We need to celebrate the positive in life – there is so much to celebrate – but also acknowledge that those periods of low mood, low energy and struggle are a normal part of life. It is easy to see someone in a leadership position, at the top of their game, as having it all figured out. After interviewing many top performers for his podcast, Tim Ferriss has made it clear that these “Titans” are like the rest of us. As he put it, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. The heroes in this book are no different. Everyone struggles. Take solace in that.”
To loop us back to the start, as leaders, we need to make time and space for people to discuss their emotions at work safely. Cognitive empathy, identifying and understanding but not feeling others’ emotions, will enable us to lead our teams and organisations better. And being honest about our struggles and doubts will make it possible for others to share theirs openly and unapologetically. This kind of empathic leadership builds organisations that people want to work for and want to succeed. This is what real employee engagement means. Bring your humanity to work so that others can bring theirs.