Avoid Leadership Suicide: Get Comfortable With Emotions

“Leadership isn’t something you do writing memos, you’ve got to appeal to people’s emotions. They’ve got to buy in with their hearts and bellies, not just their minds”

~ Lou Gerstner, former CEO, IBM

Business has a long tradition of ignoring emotions in favor of rationality. Feelings are dismissed as messy, dangerous, weak and irrelevant to day-to-day operations. But a growing body of evidence reveals that subconscious feelings drive decisions. Psychologists, neuroscientists and behavioral economists now agree that leaders who fail to understand how emotions drive actions will ultimately fail.

Emotionally astute leaders leverage feelings to gain employee commitment, engagement and performance, according to Dan Hill, CEO of Sensory Logic and author of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success (Kogan Page, 2008). A company’s emotional climate may account for up to 30 percent of job performance, according to Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee authors of Primal Leadership. CEOs, they note, are responsible for creating more than 50 percent of this climate.

3 Keys to Your Leadership Success

Numerous studies indicate that sustainable business success depends on three key leadership areas:

  1. Cultivating a sense of purpose. You will be more successful if you can influence others to join a cause greater than making a profit or creating good products or services. Give your employees reasons to believe in your department or organization and its values. In order for them to buy in, they need to see you as credible, trustworthy and unselfish—a role model who looks out for them. And at the same time, you need to be able to ask them to join “us,” without sacrificing their “me.”
  2. Clear vision. Continual change may be traumatic for employees, so leaders must paint a convincing picture of the future that motivates and prepares people for what’s coming.
  3. Cohesive culture. Your employees expect you to foster a constructive culture of trust, collaboration and excellence. And they need you to be adept at reading situations in emotional terms.

Each of these leadership roles requires emotional awareness and, most importantly, the ability to express your own emotions and feelings appropriately and effectively.

The Greater Good: Character Matters

Leaders must strive to get people on board and promote enthusiasm, but many miss the mark. Sadly, workplace statistics show that only 25 percent of employees are truly engaged. While there is an inherent desire to identify and bond with one’s leader, people instinctively defend their own interests and exercise caution before committing their careers and livelihoods to anyone. So your goal is to develop an atmosphere of trust and generosity of spirit. When you combine this with giving your employees something they can believe in—a cause greater than the common good—they engage both hearts and minds and automatically increase job performance.

Nonverbal Communications

Never underestimate the power of nonverbal communication. As a leader, you will experience a “say/feel” gap when your messages are incongruent with your physical expressions. In truth, facial expressions convey your feelings much more accurately than any words you say.

Research about messages estimates that 55 percent of meaning is derived from body language, 38 percent from vocal intonation and only 7 percent from actual words. We discern emotional content from others’ facial expressions, with seven universal emotions in three basic categories that can be found across all cultures, according to studies by Paul Eckman:

  1. Positive: happiness
  2. Neutral: surprise
  3. Negative: anger, fear, sadness, disgust and contempt

Clear Vision

Employees must trust that you have a clear destination in mind and that you are committed to steering through uncharted territory in order to make progress towards your vision.

The immediate impact of change is often quite negative, so emotional concerns must be alleviated. Emotionally astute leaders recognize there is always resistance, especially at the beginning.

It’s your job to provide hope while alleviating fear—not by denying it, but by predicting it, being honest about it and normalizing it through open communication. Successful leaders translate vision into action by explaining why they are taking a new direction, as well as honestly communicating potential consequences for failing to act.

Honestly address why your company can no longer cling to the status quo. Workers’ emotional desire for security will motivate them to accept changes that initially cause them to recoil. To make a clear case, focus on emotional benefits. Make sure your message is clear, simple, heartfelt and aligned with your company’s current emotional climate. Incorporate body language and facial expressions that strengthen the impact of your words.

Cohesive Culture

The mark of great CEOs or senior leaders is their ability to build companies where employees feel welcome to participate, collaborate and receive recognition. Building a corporate culture that inspires employees to give their best requires three qualities, according to The Leadership Challenge authors Kouzes’ and Posner’s worldwide survey on effective leadership:

  1. Honesty
  2. Forward-looking
  3. Inspirational

Never forget that the human side of business consumes most of a company’s operating costs. Failure to be emotionally adept is counterproductive—perhaps even suicidal.

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