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Emotional Agility: Why leadership and empathy must go hand in hand

Many people have experienced the past weeks and months since the beginning of the Corona crisis as an emotional rollercoaster ride. Uncertainty, anger, gratitude, feeling overwhelmed, a spirit of optimism – living and working under completely new circumstances have made the different facets of human emotions visible not only in the personal realm but also between colleagues and superiors. Therefore, leadership in times of Corona requires allowing much more space for feelings. But how much feeling is good in a work context? How much of yourself do you take with you to work? How vulnerable do you want to appear? Should it be ok to show unfiltered feelings at all times? Or only the good ones? And then what to do with the less pleasant ones? Are emotional people possibly even better leaders?

Until today – especially in the traditional corporate world – the work environment has been pretty void of emotion. Professionalism and emotionality are perceived as polar opposites. Emotional outbursts are usually limited to anger and rage, most likely come from a superior and can range from moderate to severe, depending on the personality type. Is there a better way? – Yes! At least that’s what we think (and feel). Here is our plea for a diverse and emotionally honest working world in 5 theses. 

1. Digitalization creates space for more feeling!

Robots are taking over more and more tasks that were previously done by humans. All processes that follow clear rules, that can be planned and programmed will sooner or later be outsourced to machines. And that’s good! Because it creates space for the in-between areas, for things that can’t be broken down into 1 and 0, for the unpredictable, the surprising, the colorful, in other words, for what makes us human. Machines can do a lot, but there is one thing they can’t do: feel the way humans can. Sense a mood, perceive a vibe, respond to them, reflect, confront one another, endure contradictions, and build on them, coming up with the best solutions. All this is deeply human and it is what companies need so urgently to survive in a complicated and complex world. The advance of machines is a great opportunity to put the focus back on being human and thus to the core of the “New Work” idea: People matter!

2. Feelings inspire the mind.

Rational or emotional? Both of course! Because feelings and reason are by no means mutually exclusive, quite the contrary: If we can recognize our feelings and classify them, we are also able to use them sensibly to make good decisions “from the gut”. A conscious handling of our own emotional world clears the head and opens the mind for new perspectives and ideas. However, this requires that we (want to) understand why we feel and how we feel. Routine self-reflection is one of the most important leadership tools of our time. Let’s get away from the either/or, from the cliché of “choleric or poker face or wimp”. Good leaders are not necessarily those who always rise above it all, always remain calm in crisis, or end up banging their fist on the table. A good leader deals openly with feelings of weakness when appropriate, shows strength by having his team’s back, and actively seeks outlets and channels to turn pressure, stress and anger into new, productive energy.

But how do you get there? – Through regular self-reflection, for example. It is one of the most important leadership tools in modern organizations. After all, if you want to be a compass for others, you first have to align yourself well. You need to know how to find your center of gravity, as well as recognize the triggers that cause certain feelings in you. Only then are you capable of “non-violent communication” and leadership at eye level. Knowing and expressing your own needs and staying true to yourself, even in situations of conflict – (“I feel … because I …” instead of “I am angry because you said or did XY or Z.”) – lays the foundation for good decision-making and fruitful cooperation towards a common goal.

3. “Maximum Agility” also applies to the handling of emotions.

In times of change, not only do processes have to be agile, but flexibility in dealing with feelings is also required – with one’s own and those of others. Emotionally agile are those who do not see themselves as victims of their own feelings or the feelings of others, but know how to use them in a way that has a positive effect – on productivity, creativity, team dynamics, etc. This requires, first of all, that managers and employees have an outlet for their feelings. Let everything out! But: Not all emotions should be processed in the professional environment. Nor does every work-related “emotional luggage” have to be dragged home to partners and family. Smart organizations use smart methods for their “emotion management”, such as “open doors, open ears” or the “4 spaces model”.

The resulting structures signal appreciation and openness to the feelings of employees. They give the people in the organization the freedom to be themselves, even in a professional environment, hereby setting valuable energy free. At the same time, emotions are channeled in such a way that they have a constructive and accelerating effect instead of permanently weighing down the company.

4. Allowing emotions promotes networking in companies.

“Relationships change subtly, but profoundly, when employees perceive each other not only as colleagues but as people capable of the deep love and care that small children awaken in us,” writes Frederic Laloux in “Reinventing Organisations”, which is now considered required reading for organizations in transition. Using the example of companies in which employees can bring their dogs and children to work, he describes the force that develops when colleagues perceive and value each other as emotional beings. When they start seeing each other not only in their professional roles but as people with diverse interests, needs and personalities. This way of getting to know each other opens up completely new possibilities for networking, which also has a positive effect on cooperation. “Employee communities”, for example, are created not only on the basis of common professional interests but also through, or rather because of, overlapping emotional experiences. For example, an internal “parent community” may initially come together through the topic of “Children” and a “Best-Ager Community” on the joint reflection on aspects of aging, but in the next step, this may also give rise to ideas relevant to the company, for example for family-friendly working models or cross-generational learning opportunities. In this way, showing your human side promotes networking – conversely, good networking among employees helps to create space for feelings. A mentor, a job-sharing partner, or onboarding buddy can become an important reference person who helps carry a colleague’s emotional luggage and supports him or her in getting off ballast.

5. Emotions are a crucial driver of innovation.

Fear and anger can paralyze, but they can also induce long-overdue changes. This is most visible on the political level, when anger turns into rage, rage into protest, and protest eventually leads to changes in the law. But this chain of effects also works for positive feelings. For instance, special experiences that have made us feel great joy, surprise, or gratitude can be an incentive to enable other people to have similar experiences – through new technologies, products, or services. For example, a new mother who has experienced an intense connection to her midwife might develop an app that helps other mothers find a midwife. Or an airline employee who suffers from a fear of flying himself might launch a “behind-the-scenes” podcast that takes away people’s fear of flying.

Our feelings shape our view of the world and the people around us, they make us creative and at best productive. Emotional agility also means to not only endure the constant changes around us but also to utilize the resulting feelings – both positive and negative – constructively in order to play an integral role in the changes and to help shape the course of the (working) world.

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