Express Yourself: Leadership and Emotional Intelligence
Express yourself: NWA, Madonna, Charles Wright & the 103rd Street Rhythm Band all sang about it. Continuing the series of posts about Emotional Intelligence and management, this week I’m covering Self-Expression. How do we express our emotions, how we can be assertive and just how much independence is “healthy”? As before, we’re going to delve into some detail on each area, using the EQi model, with the aim of giving some practical advice for managers who want to further develop their Emotional Intelligence.
As mentioned in previous posts, our emotions are an essential part of our working lives. However, we are often far better at sharing those emotions we perceive as positive; joy, excitement, enthusiasm, than we are at sharing emotions perceived as negative; anxiety, fear, sadness. Bursting into the office, excited by the prospect of a new project or client, can be positive, motivating and great at firing people up. But what about less positive emotions? Many managers may believe that its ok to express the former, but not the latter. We might choose to manage or control our emotions, specifically the negative ones. But is that workable, practical or advisable?
What happens when we suppress, hide or manage those emotions we don’t want to share? Whenever we try to suppress our emotions, we might succeed in the moment, or at least we think we do. However, more than likely we leaked some of our true emotions, and people could sense what was really going on. Just like the gambler has “tells”, unconscious physical ticks that give them away, the same can be said of suppressing our emotions.
People are very good at noticing any inconsistency between what we say verbally and the physical signals we send out. So although we may say that we aren’t sad or angry, if we are feeling it, the chances are that our body language will give us away.
So we cannot always hide or suppress the negative emotions. But what about the positive ones? Is it always possible to be happy? Too much positive emotion, all the time can be draining. If one were forced to smile constantly not only would it be exhausting, but it would also be fake. Only expressing positive emotions leads to “the Pollyanna effect” – the perception that everything is wonderful.
In reality, things aren’t always wonderful and sometimes its essential that we recognise that. Increasing workloads, lost customers, increased competition, these are all potential sources of stress for the individual and can be threats to the organisation. Responding to employee concerns and fears with only positive emotion, might leave them feeling ignored, marginalised or at least misunderstood. It might be more appropriate to give some space to negative emotions. Share our more negative feelings: anxiety, nervousness or even fear, can bring us closer together as a team.
Expressing emotion doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be a simple as letting people know how you feel. But, as in many things, striking a balance is key. Not expressing any emotion and we risk being regarded as cold, robotic or uncaring. Expressing too much could lead to over-sharing or being perceived as too emotional, or unstable.
How should we strike the right balance? It can come down to what feels authentic. People like authentic leaders, those who behave in ways that are consistent with their personality: being true to oneself. So how much emotion we want to express and of which kind, is really a matter of personal choice. When we express emotion authentically we are more likely to be understood by our team, and we might understand them better too.
So, what should the emotionally intelligent manager do?
Its ok to share how you are feeling. Whether that be a “good” or “bad” emotion. Sharing how we feel can increase trust and cohesion, when we express joy at success or sadness at failure. It also brings a more holistic and authentic version of ourselves into play.
Make the distinction between I am, and I feel. When sharing those emotions, its important to draw the distinction between “I am” and “I feel”. Saying “I am happy” roots that emotion as part of my identity and permanent, less open to change. Saying “I feel happy” perfectly describes what we are feeling, but it is transient. The feeling may come or go but we will remain ourselves.
Just Ask. Don’t try and guess, just ask people how they are feeling. If they don’t want to tell you, they won’t. If they do, they will. But asking does two things. First it demonstrates empathy and second it also gives them permission to express their emotions too.
Assertiveness has been described as the mid-point on continuum, with aggression is at one end and passivity at the other. We’ve all had our own experiences of assertiveness: it could be a moment where we weren’t assertive enough, or we went too far. But as a manager, no one wants to be either a doormat or a bully.
Not being assertive enough, being too passive, gives rises to confusion. When a manager doesn’t assert their intentions, then it can leave their team feeling like no one is steering the ship. This situation gets worse in the case of inappropriate or detrimental behaviour in the team. If a manager is not assertive in challenging problematic behaviour, then it sends the message that the behaviour is somewhat acceptable. In each case, teams can work more effectively when their manager is clear about what is and isn’t wanted.
Looking at the other end of the spectrum, being too assertive might push managers towards over dominating, bullying behaviour or even the perception of aggression. Asserting one’s opinions and views too strongly can discourage others from contributing. Being too assertive can lead to short-sighted decision making, or worse increase the number of blind spots. Its better to encourage a degree of healthy diversity in opinions. Healthy diversity is hard to achieve if one moves from being assertive to being domineering.
Being assertive is a good quality for a leader. But taken to sticking too rigidly to our beliefs in the face of contrasting evidence might mean we are sleepwalking into trouble. Standing one’s ground is all very well and noble. But not so noble if we haven’t noticed that the ground we are standing on is sinking.
As a manager, we may feel forced to walk the assertiveness tightrope, wobbling and balancing between being too passive or too aggressive. So, what should an emotionally intelligent manager do?
Try candid communication. Being candid means being frank, plain speaking, being forthright, open and honest. Candour is just assertiveness in action.
Check in with other people. Assertiveness isn’t just about the message you send out, but also how it is received. Consider their body language, how they react to what you share. Check that your assertions aren’t misinterpreted as aggression.
Be kind. Straight talking doesn’t mean being deliberately unkind, malicious or confrontational.
Its not about right and wrong. Assertiveness means expressing your right to hold an opinion, belief or feeling, whilst simultaneously respecting the right of others to hold a different position. Is certainly never a case of “I’m right you’re wrong”.
A key element of emotional intelligence is independence. That is, our ability to think, work and act without the need for approval, reassurance or permission. Some of us work best alone, whilst others produce their best work when part of a team. How much independence we need to thrive can be utterly subjective. On the one hand, we can benefit from great team. On the other hand, organisations can also benefit from innovators, rule breakers and rebels. So how much independence is enough?
Those who are truly independent don’t feel the need for the approval of others. But this can be both creative and destructive. Sometimes we can only truly innovate by breaking a few rules. Rule breakers and innovators are more focused on getting results, to hell with what anyone else thinks. Popular culture both celebrates and romanticises their philosophy. At the same time, that same too much independence can create mavericks, disruptive lone wolves or rebels, working against the needs of the organisation.
But the experience of working alongside independent mavericks can be anything but romantic. Left unbounded, independent goals and motives can be detrimental to the organisation. An individual might hit their own targets but at the expense of the wider organisation. At its extreme, independence is a driving force behind prima donnas, divas, work hermits or “people who don’t play well with others”. Whether we consider the independent spirits Innovators or Rebels, or one and the same, is often a matter of perspective.
The alternative to too much independence is a healthy dose of collaboration. Time and again, the cohesive team can outperform highly talented but separate individuals. Small units or teams can be far more agile and much more effective than larger clunky organisations. As you might expect, being a team player is both a highly valued and highly sought-after skill.
But when collaboration is left unchecked, then it can result in people who are incapable of making decision or working alone. Where every decision needs to be checked and confirmed with a manager or the wider group, progress can be ponderously slow. The longer the chain of command, the greater the inertia and the slower the pace.
Too much focus on the team, too much dependency, can lead to complacency. Group think sometimes need to be challenged. Having independent thinkers can help avoid making a mistake. Sometimes radical disagreement or creative tension are necessary to truly advance and move things forward.
So what is the advice for managers? How much independence is enough?
Goldilocks independence – too much, not enough or just right. Some people will crave more independence than others, the trick is to get tuned into your team and understand where on the continuum they can best thrive. If in doubt, ask them.
Independence brings innovation and mistakes. Encouraging greater independence should go hand in hand with accepting that they will make some mistakes, or at least do things differently from how we might do it. You can’t have one without the other. But giving that independence can be a great way to accelerate innovation. We can learn to adapt and overcome when things don’t go to plan. Sometimes these lessons are much more valuable, than from when things go right.
Wrap independence up with organisation values. Independence is great, but within certain limits. The organisational values provide a common point of reference for both solving problems or making decisions. It causes people to stop and think: “Is this in line with our values?” and prevents the likelihood of conflict between their individual behaviour and the overall organisational values.
Time to Express Yourself!
Pulling the different elements together, we’ve looked at self-expression through three dimensions: emotional expression, assertiveness and independence. But what do you think?
- How much emotion should be expressed at work?
- Does assertiveness exist outside of the aggressive / passive continuum?
- How can we encourage independence without creating isolation, internal confusion and potential conflict?
Share your thoughts with us by commenting on the blog below.
If you’d like more information on Emotional Intelligence or you’d like to learn more about any of these three areas of the EQi 2.0 model, get in touch with us. on 015395 67878, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.dovenest.co.uk.