I’ve worked with many leaders over the years, and one thing that always surprises me is how many don’t internalize their own power.
They spend their entire careers reaching for authority, only to forget its influence once they have it.
For example, I’ve seen many leaders mention in passing a nascent idea and, unbeknownst to them, their team scrambles to execute on it as a directive. Similarly, I’ve seen many senior leaders self-conceive as “middle management” in the grand scheme of a large organization, when in fact, to their teams, they might as well be the CEO. It’s the Great Dane trying to sit in his owner’s lap. Leaders don’t always know their own weight. Whether this is true for you, only you could answer that. But I suspect that whatever power you feel you have, your team thinks you have more.
A quote by child psychologist and psychotherapist, Haim G. Ginott, comes to mind:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an insrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.”
One of the most important qualities a leader can foster (in themselves and the broader workplace) is the trust that they can be emotionally reliable. It’s what gives employees and team members the confidence to speak openly with their managers, VPs, and executives, and know these individuals (in positions of authority) will keep their cool in moments of crisis, stress, or instability. Don’t get me wrong—I am not arguing that leaders need to suppress their emotions in favor of professional stoicism. Emotionally reliable leaders can be highlyemotive. They simply know how to process and communicate their emotions in a healthy way such that their emotions don’t get the best of them.
Here are a few ways emotionally reliable leaders foster this sort of trust with their teammates.
1. Emotionally reliable leaders don’t “leak” their feelings.
Many leaders don’t internalize how a flash of frustration on their face or an exasperated sigh is immediately picked up by their teams.
These cues give individuals insight into how the leader (whom they likely do not interact with as often as their own peers and coworkers) feels about a given situation. In some cases, these cues are actually more important than the words the leader uses. They are a more authentic glimpse into what the individual is feeling, not just thinking.
In fact, research from behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian shows that only 7% of communication occurs through verbal expression, while 38% of information comes through tone of voice, and a whopping 55% through body language. Which means, even when a leader feels like they are “keeping it together” and saying the right things, their voice and body are likely betraying them. When leaders are not processing their own emotions and sharing their emotions in a healthy way with their team, their team is likely drawing their own conclusions about the stress signals they see: “Is it me? Did I do something wrong? Is our team headed for a crisis?”
2. Emotionally reliable leaders have a high level of mental health awareness.
CEOs have bad days. Managers aren’t “perfect.”
Maybe they’re having a bad day because something happened with a friend or family member. Maybe they are stressed about moving, or the fact they had to cancel an upcoming vacation.
Emotionally reliable leaders have the presence of mind to communicate how they are feeling and the state of their mental health with their team. They have the self-awareness to say, “I am feeling a lot of anxiety right now because of this issue in my life, and I am working through that. I just wanted you all to know. Team, you are doing great.” This level of transparency goes against everything the legacy business world believes about “professionalism” (which is a disguise for suppressed emotion), but in reality, models extremely healthy behavior. It is what gives team members the permission to bring a high level of mental health awareness into the workplace themselves.
All of which leads to better emotional responses from their teams.
3. Emotionally reliable leaders have a non-anxious presence.
I have always liked the term “a non-anxious presence”, originally coined by Jewish Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman.
There will always be anxiety in life and in business. Success isn’t about “not feeling” the anxiety. It’s about how you express it, how you model working through it, and how you make clear the source of that anxiety.
Emotionally reliable leaders communicate how they are feeling and the source of those feelings. For example, if you are feeling anxious about an upcoming project deliverable, you may say to your team, “Hey everyone, I was feeling a bit anxious this past weekend about the fact that we’re a bit behind schedule. Let’s work together today to get caught up so that we can all feel good about this product launch on Friday.” You can immediately tell how much more productive and healthy that form of communication would be for a team—as opposed to you huffing and puffing your way through the day, not vocalizing how you’re feeling or why.
Ironically, being a non-anxious presence does not mean being void of anxiety. It means creating a team culture where anxiety isn’t crippling and isn’t personal. It’s simply a part of being human and something a team can help each other get through—together.