“I realize my boundaries are blurred, but I don’t know how to handle everything on my plate. There is a lot to do and a lot to take care of … The team looks for so much in terms of guidance, direction, energy, ideas, structure … I feel like I am carrying the weight of it all.”
We all struggle with stress, anxiety, and other difficult emotions. But it can be tough to figure out what to do with these feelings, especially if we’re the ones who are supposed to be leading and supporting others. What’s the best way for a leader to handle their own emotional struggles at work?
To explore this question, we invited 30 leaders from the US and UK to keep journals for four weeks in May and June of 2020. The leaders were from a variety of global corporations, national and international charities, and startups, and we asked them to write weekly entries in response to three different prompts: 1. What is emerging for you? 2. What are you finding you need? and 3. What are you letting go of? Without exception, every leader in our study described major emotional turmoil. One leader wrote, “Just the stress of lockdown has made me wonder if this is all worth it. I’m struggling to keep my emotions in check, and the people closest to me are getting the brunt of it.” Another shared that on some days, they felt like they had lost their will to live and sense of purpose. Yet another described feeling “a sense of dread. I feel I have little grasp on how to navigate the future, much less to lead others.”
Despite their common emotional experiences, however, the leaders diverged significantly in how they responded to these challenges. Specifically, our analysis identified three distinct types of leaders, each of whom took a different approach to managing their negative emotions:
- Heroes: Leaders who focused on the positive, doing their best to convince their teams that they would get through the crisis no matter what.
- Technocrats: Leaders who ignored emotions altogether and focused on tactical solutions.
- Sharers: Leaders who openly acknowledged their fears, stresses, and other negative emotions.
While there are pros and cons to every leadership style, we found that Sharers were particularly successful in building cohesive, high-performing teams that were resilient in the face of the myriad challenges posed by the pandemic. Why might this be? Both our own work and a vast body of existing research suggests several reasons why Sharers are likely to outperform Heroes and Technocrats.
Technocrats and Heroes Aren’t as Heroic as They Seem
First, while positivity can improve performance, research suggests that trying to ignore a negative emotion actually makes you feel worse. As one leader put it, “I’m sick of reading, self-motivating, learning, staying upbeat, etc. when all I can feel is tiredness from overwork and fear.” Another expressed a similar sentiment: “My positivity, resilience, and outwardly strong mindset … are pillars for those around me — I find that people are gravitating around this, but I have to protect my space and keep looking after myself when I’m tired etc., because I can give others the impression it’s all under control and ‘in good hands’ and that isn’t always true.”
In addition, a Hero leadership style can make team members feel more distant from their leader, since if the leader appears not to be struggling at all, it can put pressure on others to suppress their own challenges. A façade of positivity can decrease the well-being of both team members and leaders, undermine leaders’ relationships with employees, and ultimately reduce self-confidence and performance at work.
Similarly, while there’s certainly a time and a place for focusing on results, many of the Technocrats in our study found that ignoring emotions simply didn’t work. For one, it undermined leaders’ own mental health. As one leader noted, “At the start of the pandemic, I managed the stress and the uncertainty by looking after my own mental space a lot. Now, I am still locked in but I am a lot less kind to myself. My old ‘business as usual’ pushing has come back … I am feeling more and more out of sync and not giving myself any more of the ‘self-nurturing’ space I had at the beginning of the pandemic.”
This approach can also take a toll on leaders’ relationships with their teams. One Technocrat wrote that they were “letting go of some of the niceties and ‘fluff.’ I just don’t have enough time right now and it’s the softer sides that are being sacrificed.” And of course, letting negative emotions go unaddressed inevitably ends up impacting productivity. Another participant noted that despite (or perhaps because of) his results-focused leadership style, “there are people (and I include some senior people) who seem to be doing the very minimum that is required of them … People are hitting walls, and there are lots of frustrations.”
While emotions may seem frivolous to some, they in fact drive everything leaders care about, from job performance to turnover to customer satisfaction. By ignoring emotions, Technocrats fail both to harness the positive emotions that spur performance and to address the negative emotions that undermine it.
The Best Leaders Are Sharers
In contrast, sharing negative emotions can lessen their impact on the leader, build empathy between leaders and employees, encourage others to open up about their own negative emotions, and help others recontextualize and overcome those struggles — ultimately boosting morale and performance throughout the organization. For example, one leader found that when they opened up about emotions with their team, it allowed them “to get beyond small talk and connect more deeply… it opened up a different and richer conversation, a very ‘data rich’ discussion in a way that can be lacking from video calls.” These “more human conversations” helped teams to weather the days that still felt “very much like a roller coaster — exciting, energetic, and optimistic in one moment and deflated, down, and lethargic the next.”
Another leader wrote about how acknowledging their own emotional turbulence helped them to understand the mental state of their employees and to interact with them more effectively and empathetically. Throughout our study, we found that being open about their own inner turmoil helped Sharers’ teams to feel more comfortable doing the same, which in turn both helped everyone to cope more effectively with their negative emotions and created greater psychological closeness between teammates despite their physical separation.
Becoming a Sharer Is Difficult — But Not Impossible
Of course, becoming a Sharer is often easier said than done. In the journal entries, we found that many leaders had strong biases towards the Hero and Technocrat styles, driven by a widespread assumption that true leaders must always be aspirational and results-oriented, and that admitting negative emotions is a sign of weakness. One Hero-type leader described feeling like they “had to lead others with positivity while fighting fires on a daily basis,” and others even apologized for the negativity of their entries — as if they were ashamed not to focus on the positive, even in a private journaling exercise. Similarly, Technocrat leaders often prioritized “immediate challenges around how to work going forward,” writing that they needed “organization and focus so I don’t get distracted.”