While the emotional labor you do as a leader may go unrecognized and undervalued, it is more important than ever in today’s work world. This job is often a selfless and prosocial act, which allows you to care and positively impact others even if you don’t feel like it. However, it doesn’t have to come at your personal expense. In this piece, the author offers four techniques to try the next time your feelings and emotional expectations conflict, so you can preserve your health and ensure your high performance over time.
There are unwritten rules about emotions you hope to display at work. These implicit “feeling rules” are so embedded in the social fabric of an organization that we rarely notice them. However, there are times when there is a conflict between what you feel and the emotions you hope to display. So how do you decide when to express your true feelings and be “real” and when to put on a game face and show the emotions that are expected of you?
Because of their visibility and the requirements of their role, leaders encounter this problem often. Take Jon, a senior legal leader who strongly disagrees with his general counsel’s ways of working but is expected to rally his team. Or Dara, who is expected to be willing to transfer his organization (one he built and didn’t want to let go) to another leader as part of a re-org. To manage these emotional demands, leaders often “put on the surface,” putting on a facade that belies their true feelings. And this emotional labor is done more than ever.
Leaders risk losing credibility and effectiveness if they reveal everything they think and feel – a reality that is especially true for women and people of color. But controlling your emotions is also expensive. The stress of moving up makes leaders more vulnerable body pain, insomnia, combustionand depression. The effort expended also reduces self-control, increasing the chance that leaders busy at work. In turn, this affects the level of engagement, turnover, and the financial performance in an organization.
So, what is the cure? How can leaders walk this authentic tightrope? Here are some strategies to try the next time you find your emotions — and the emotions you hope to display — conflict:
1. Rethink the situation.
When your feelings and emotional expectations conflict, “deep movement” offers a healthier, more effective alternative to surface movement. With this technique, you focus on finding legitimate reasons to feel the expected feelings, so you don’t have to fake them.
For example, Dara understands that he needs to be kind and cooperative in transferring his organization to another leader; however, he felt worthless and angry. In order to manage this inappropriateness, Dara focused on the benefits of the situation – an opportunity for him to do something new. Looking at the situation again, Dara changed her emotional state so that she could better reflect the expected emotions.
Empathy helps change and move deeply, too. Imagine your team racing to complete critical deliverables when a team member requests a week off to attend to a family emergency. Your immediate feelings will be disbelief and horror – how can we do all this now? But by seeing the situation through your team member’s eyes, you’re more likely to experience genuine concern and show compassion.
Deep movement requires mental effort and is not always possible because it takes time to step back and reevaluate. However, deep actor report less fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals compared to the above actors.
2. Focus on what is important.
For example, Jon saw that his disdain and sadness negatively affected his team. By thinking about his team’s needs, rather than prioritizing his value of transparency, Jon moved from feeling like a fraud to feeling good about showing his team the ways they needed.
To refocus, go back and think about why your work matters. How does this affect your team members, customers, or the wider community? Creating a positive outcome for the people we care about can make our experience of expressing certain emotions less taxing and negative.
3. Do an emotional audit.
Situations where we experience internal dissonance are opportunities for personal learning and growth. Do an emotional audit and ask yourself: How am I feeling? Where do I feel it in my body? What makes me feel that way? What does my reaction say about my beliefs or values?
From an early age, many of us receive the message that certain emotions are not okay. When we are sad, we are told to “man-up” or “big girls don’t cry.” When we get angry, we tell ourselves to calm down. But emotions are natural and important: They provide feedback on how we experience the world, help us make good decisions, build positive relationships, and cultivate well-being.
Consider whether your discomfort stems from your beliefs about the validity of certain emotions. If so, validating your feelings may help you break free from the limiting scripts embedded in your family and cultural upbringing.
This process builds your emotional intelligence, strengthening your capacity to do emotional work and leadership over time. Many leaders I coach are out of touch with their feelings and bodies, unaware of how their inner landscape influences their actions. However, self awareness and skillful emotional management are essential for effective leadership in today’s complex and challenging world.
If a sense of dissonance in your role is persistent, consider how you can align your position closer to your values. Constantly revisiting negative emotions about your role or work situation is not a good long-term solution. If your attitudes and motives are closer fit the more emotional your job demands, the less emotional labor it requires.
4. Take time to reconnect and recharge.
To reduce the burden of emotional labor, seek support. Talk to people you can express your unedited thoughts and feelings to – whether it’s your partner, a therapist or coach, or trusted peers. Engaging in relaxing and recharging activities, such as meditation, journaling, art, or nature walks, can also reduce hidden stress.
It’s also important to embrace self-compassion. Self-compassion increases your emotional intelligence, capacity to treat others more compassionately, and overall effectiveness as a leader. Leaders rarely receive training on how to recognize and work with emotions, so treat yourself kindly as you come up on the learning curve.
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While the emotional labor you do as a leader may go unrecognized and undervalued, it is more important than ever in today’s work world. This job is often a selfless and prosocial act, which allows you to care and positively impact others even if you don’t feel like it. However, it doesn’t have to come at your personal expense. Try the techniques listed above — to preserve your health and ensuring your high performance over time.