Taking it to heart: The power of emotions in the leadership of change

Development Monthly | #7 March 2022 | Taking it to heart: The power of emotions in the leadership of change

Sarah Smith

Vice-Principal and University Secretary,
University of Edinburgh
and Executive Coach

At a leadership development session that I attended the other day, a participant reflected on the guilt that they felt to be thinking about holidays and enjoying themselves when such awful things were happening in Ukraine.  That led to the reflection that two years of pandemic-related anxiety, compounded by a very present sense of guilt and shock was a powerful combination of emotions for many of us to be wrestling with.

So how do mixtures of emotions like this show up in the way we lead and engage with our work colleagues?  How do we impact the emotions and emotional energy of those around us; and how do their emotions frame what they hear or sense in what we say and do?   And why does that matter when we are thinking about shaping the future of Higher Education?

At the AUA annual conference in Manchester in July I am going to be talking about the importance of leaders grappling with the impact of emotions, for themselves and for the people they lead. In particular, to understand what keeps them afloat and what threatens their buoyancy; and how they impact (intentionally or otherwise) on the emotional energy of those around them.  I believe this is of fundamental importance when we are talking about shaping the future of higher education – deepening our awareness of the impact of emotions is core to supporting ourselves and others to best contribute and achieve our potential.

We know that emotions fundamentally shape how we and others make sense of the world – including the world of work.  A colleague who is feeling anxious or fearful may interpret the same message or behaviour in a completely different way from a colleague who is feeling confident and positive.  Our ability to learn, to take risks, to challenge and be challenged – all of this is bound up in our emotional state.

We also know that emotions are contagious.  We affect and are affected by the emotions of those around us – for good or ill.     In his book ‘Primal Leadership’, Daniel Goleman notes that ‘Leaders’ emotional states and actions do affect how the people they lead will feel and therefore perform. How well leaders manage their moods and affect everyone else’s moods, then, becomes not just a private matter, but a factor in how well a business will do.’ 

At a recent INSEAD webinar, Gianpiero Petriglieri reflected on the impact of the pandemic on emotions, suggesting that people were ‘spread out and stressed out’; that talent had become more uncertain, exhausted, suspicious, isolated and productive than ever.  The past was no longer seen as stable and the future not yet imaginable.   Performance and existential anxieties could combine to lead some to a sense of chronic depletion where they feel on the defensive and permanently overworked.

It has been suggested that, while people had broadly similar emotional responses during the first phase of the pandemic, their psychological response is now more differentiated than ever.  Put more simply, it is likely that if you are in a room with 10 of your colleagues you may all have quite different levels of emotions such as fear, anxiety and guilt. That makes it harder as a team member or as a leader to know how what you are saying (and what you are doing) is being perceived, felt and, ultimately, understood. 

Navigating how best to interact with colleagues in these times calls for a deep level of emotional self-awareness.  It can be powerful and productive to pay attention to what triggers your own particular emotional reactions at work; what (or who!) depletes or boosts your emotional energy; and how you might be affecting the emotions of those around you. 

It also calls for leadership with care, as Petriglieri would term it.  A leadership which others experience as feeling seen and reassured.  Petriglieri suggests that we could think about leadership as a helping profession, where leadership includes the capacity to repair, renew and sustain a group.  

Closely linked to this would be focusing our leadership and our interactions with others on creating and sustaining a feeling of psychological safety.  In her book, ‘The Fearless Organization’, Amy Edmondson suggests that psychological safety – ‘a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves’ – helps explain differences in performance in many different sectors and at many different levels in an organisation.   She notes that this ‘is not only a better place for employees, it’s also a place where innovation, growth, and performance take hold.’  This is seen as particularly important when we are facing a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In such times, it is particularly important to find ways of collectively generating a sense of realistic hope about the future.  Due to emotional contagion, if we genuinely and authentically feel hopeful, those around us are more likely to catch that bug and feel that too.  In ‘The Optimist’s Telescope’,  Bina Venkataraman talks about how thinking about the future can be ‘anxiety-inducing or even paralyzing’ and discusses ways in which ‘we can boost our ability to envision the range of possibilities that lie ahead’, suggesting we can create ‘anchors to the future that allow us to imagine it’.

I recently explored some of these themes in a series of interviews with a number of senior leaders in Universities and in Government as part of my research for my Masters thesis at INSEAD.  There was a strong shared recognition of the importance of deep awareness of the power and impact of emotions in leadership. 

These leaders knew that the way in which they handle and project their own emotions and emotional energy will come through to the people around them.  As one interviewee put it: ‘People are watching you, you are a barometer’.  

They reflected on the importance and power of story in building a sense of realistic hope: ‘our story about ourselves…a positive, affirmative story’.

And they recognised the importance of thinking purposively about the emotions of those that they lead. 

I would like to end this piece with the words of one of the senior leaders I interviewed which I think captures perfectly a core element of emotionally-aware leadership.

 ‘I have always spent a lot of my time being the person who curated and managed and attended to the emotions of the organisation…my starting point was what are all these people going to feel?’

Sarah will be delivering a keynote speech at this year’s AUA Annual Conference and Exhibition (7 to 8 July).
Find out more information about the AUA Annual Conference here
Book you place here

The books, webinars and research referred to are:

Primal Leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee, 2002.  Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Leading with Care: Through the Crisis and Beyond.   Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour, INSEAD.  INSEAD webinar 12/10/21.

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.  Amy C Edmondson, 2019.  New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.  Bina Venkataraman, 2020.  New York: Riverhead Books.

Senior Leader Interviews as part of research for INSEAD Executive Master in Change programme 2019/21; Sarah Smith.

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