One of the most debated topics in leadership is the role emotion should or should not play at work.
No one wants to work for a leader completely devoid of emotion, nor do most people want to work on a team of emotionless people. For example, I have always liked to see members of my team get animated around issues they are passionate about. I also appreciate emotional vulnerability when a team member has something important going on outside of work that is affecting their mindset. A leader should be willing to listen and help relieve pressure on their people during extraordinary circumstances.
As long as these displays of extraordinary emotion are the exception, and not the rule, they make a team closer and stronger.
At the same time, too many employees and leaders regularly struggle to regulate or compartmentalize their emotions, and this can quickly become problematic. When you are working with someone who is constantly on an emotional roller coaster, you can never be certain which version of them you’ll get in any given moment. Ultimately, a constant lack of emotional regulation erodes trust over time—both between peers and, especially, between leaders and employees.
If a leader believes their employee cannot handle difficult situations without overreacting emotionally, it often creates a vicious cycle. The leader starts working around the employee, giving them fewer high-value tasks, and not trusting them with high-leverage projects. This in turn then limits the employee’s growth and advancement opportunities.
We all have things that strain our emotions—often, these are challenges we face outside of work that have the potential to impact our behavior in the workplace. One of the most important steps of emotional regulation is to learn how to build a discerning filter between our personal and professional lives, a barrier that helps ensure professional performance isn’t regularly impacted by what’s going on outside of work.
Over my career, I have had many colleagues who regularly wore the emotional burden of a non-work issue on their sleeves. What initially starts as empathy often quickly turns to exhaustion when everyone recognizes a challenging pattern of behavior.
Conversely, I recently heard a story from a leader who finished an important strategic planning meeting with their team, only to find out that one of their team members was attending a funeral immediately after the session. The leader was amazed with how engaged the person had been in the meeting, despite the weighty emotional burden they carried.
I don’t share that story to imply that suppressing emotions is always the right strategy, or that people should be afraid to bring their whole selves to work. However, it’s not surprising that this specific individual was a fast-rising leader known specifically for their consistent temperament, a quality that had been previously identified as an asset to the team.
When an individual is unable to create any separation between their work and personal life, they often react to situations disproportionately and inconsistently. This results in colleagues and managers feeling like they need to constantly walk on eggshells, which leads to avoidance.
It’s not that our emotions have no place at work, even if they stem from personal issues. However, we must learn to regulate these emotions to show up consistently for our colleagues, leaders and the people we lead ourselves. Otherwise, we put others in the difficult position of not knowing which version of us they’ll get in any given moment, and that inconsistency ultimately undermines trust and collaboration.
This dynamic exists in our personal lives as well. Most of us have had to put aside our professional challenges for the day to show up at home as a partner, parent or friend. Otherwise, without that separation, a bad day at work leads to a fight at the dinner table over nothing. Similarly, at one time or another, we have likely encouraged a partner or parent to please “leave work at the office.” Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to expect the inverse.
How is your own level of emotional regulation? Are you willing and able to show emotion and vulnerability when appropriate? And at the same time, are you able to create the right level of filter between your work and your life outside of it?
Ultimately, the level of trust others have in you may come down to doing both well.
Quote of The Week
“You’ll have good days, bad days, overwhelming days, too tired days, I’m awesome days, I can’t go on days. And every day you’ll still show up.”