How Our Emotions Affect How We Communicate as Leaders [And What to Do About It]

As a leader, you might see yourself as somehow “above your emotions.” It’s true that you need to be rational and assess options objectively. But your deeper feelings and needs influence how you manage in many more ways that you might realize.

This quote from Psychology Today gets at the crux of the problem:

Young business man despising colleagues` and friends` counsels

“You may think that the best course of action is to suppress or ignore an intense emotion rather than figure it out. But why ignore an emotion that has evolved over thousands of years? Emotions serve a purpose, informing you, the operator of your body, what to do. We’re constantly faced with an abundance of information that we must process–a lot of stimulation to reflect upon. You do not have time to process all information in a reflective fashion but your brain processes it passively and unconsciously. If your brain comes across something it appraises as a “red flag,” you’ll be sent a general, vague alert in the form of the feelings and thoughts that are created by an emotion. This somewhat imprecise signal alerts you to pay attention. In this way, your emotions serve as a cueing system–an attention directing system associated with physiological changes that can prepare you to take action. But it is also not a very smart system because it has many false alarms. There are emotional misfires. Thus you need to evaluate your response to see if it is appropriate.”

So what can you do to make sure your response is in line with what you want and what your team and clients need?

The first step is to understand the depth and subtlety of the problem. Researchers Barsade and Gibson came up with this interesting scale to distinguish different types of emotions:

  • “Discrete, short-lived emotions, such as joy, anger, fear and disgust.
  • Moods, which are longer-lasting feelings and not necessarily tied to a particular cause. A person is in a cheerful mood, for instance, or feeling down.
  • Dispositional, or personality, traits, which define a person’s overall approach to life. “She’s always so cheerful,” or “He’s always looking at the negative.”

All three types of feelings can be contagious, and emotions don’t have to be grand and obvious to have an impact. Subtle displays of emotion, such as a quick frown, can have an effect as well, Barsade says. She offers this example: “Say your boss is generally in very good humor, but you see him one day at a meeting and his eyes flash at you. Even if they don’t glare at you for the rest of the meeting, his eyes have enunciated some valuable information that is going to have you concerned and worried and off center for the rest of the meeting.”

These emotions can affect your communication as a leader in many ways:

1.   Your emotions can cloud important issues.

Your personal feelings about a subordinate, superior or even something happening outside of work can make it difficult for you to concentrate and see important issues clearly. If your 3 years old pitches a fit on the morning of a big client meeting, or a vendor tells a racist joke to you on the phone, these small events can throw off your emotional equilibrium.

2.   Your emotions can make you respond differently.

When you experience negative emotions, you respond differently to those around you than you normally would.

For example, a bright-eyed-and-bushytailed development exec, Keith, comes bursting into your office with a solid idea for a new campaign. But since your fantasy football team got blown out by your brother-in-law’s, you’ll dismiss Keith’s idea as “lacking in imagination,” blind to the effect of your mood.

3.   Your emotions can cause bias.

Emotions cause you to treat some folks better or worse than others. For example, if you know that Debbie is having a hard time outside of work because of a mortgage crisis, you’ll overlook her lack of productivity. If you resent Daryl because he’s more popular than you at the office, you’ll be more likely to reprimand him when he’s late with his next report.

Recognition and acceptance of your biases – and of your potential to make decisions informed by these biases – can help neutralize them.

Would you like one-on-one assistance with your leadership strategies? Contact me for a free consultation.

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