5 Things Leaders Do When Emotions Are High

Last week, I noted that any leadership problem that’s worth its salt will have emotion bursting through it. Whether that problem’s a “rebellious teenager,” the Israelis and Palestinians, employee layoffs, or controversial strategy. I asked your thoughts about what a leader should do with emotion, and there were some great comments from Cathy Raines, Mick McKellar, Norma Bauer, T Grier and Mark John Hunter (see the footnote below for a quick summary*).  I promised my view. And today is Part One.

Here’s what I think leaders do:

1. WATCH for emotions! They are there all the time.

2. RESPECT their POWER!  Just try to talk to a hurt or angry child, teacher, labor leader, or a boss who’s gotten his ego bruised.  Hello, you’re thinking, “Can we please be reasonable here?”    “No! Not without dealing with the feeling.”  Look at Ferguson if you don’t believe that a seething sense of injustice must be reckoned with. Or watch how positive emotions of kindness, encouragement, empathy, and generosity ricochet in positive ways throughout organizations, as though in chemical reaction. In all but the coolest of cats, emotion outguns rationality for sheer will and firepower.

3. See that EMOTION is often magnetized, polarized. Learn to look at it systemically.  If kids are feeling rebellious (hurt, judged and afraid of their parent’s “dominating” them), parents will almost chemically be simultaneously feeling hurt by the lack of appreciation, judged by their kids’ righteousness, and will be afraid of the rebellion. If labor feels misunderstood and exploited by management, management will very often feel, you guessed it, misunderstood and exploited by labor.  I am not saying that it’s always the same emotion. But often, in conversations of sexism, racism, etc., one “side’s” sense of victimization fear, self-doubt, will lock right in with the other “side’s” sense of victimization fear, self-doubt (though these emotions may show up to the other “side” as rage, bravado, or self-righteousness)What, then, ought a leader do with this rather bizarre pair of puzzle pieces?

4.  VALIDATE emotions.  African-Americans and many others who are concerned about the police-Black interaction, do feel angry and afraid in St. Louis/Ferguson. Telling people they shouldn’t feel something is pretty much guaranteed to make things worse. If you want to lead, you MUST create space in yourself to be able to hear. Hear that people have been hurt by your actions — no matter how well-meaning they were; hear that people are scared, nervous, mad, etc.

5. EMPATHIZE with people’s feelings.  Empathy means “feeling with.” It’s not enough to validate by saying, “I hear that you are angry;” not if we can’t genuinely get in their place and FEEL with them and express that we imagine what it might feel like for them.  So often, we just don’t get there.  We leave them  with their emotions.  And in such cases we maintain the systemic separation. They have one part of the problem, and we or somebody else has another part of the problem, and each feels misunderstood, and each feels the other must change.

Yet empathy is so hard to do.  In part because it means we have to put our beloved reason and our opinions and solutions on the shelf (although not permanently). And, probably a bigger reason why empathy is so hard is that we are AFRAID (big emotion!) that if we let someone know we feel with them, they will take advantage of us (or of other important constituents we have to protect). They will demand reparations. They will keep complaining, rebelling, crying, pleading any time things don’t go their way. Should we reward the problem children????

Yes!!!! If reward means hearing them out, “letting” them be emotional as well as rational, seeing through their eyes, accepting that they’re not crazy but human.  Because if we “love ’em and lead ’em” as my friend Jim Kouzes loves to say, then their problem is our problem. We have to “get it,” receive it, own it, feel it before we can fully understand it.

As Cathy Raines wrote last week, this stuff takes time.  I actually HOPE I’ve made you uncomfortable, maybe indignant, maybe angry with me a little.  Because I’d invite you to sit with your own emotion.  And try out what I’m saying. Try not having to RESOLVE the issue and jump to conclusions, policy implications, logical plans of recourse, etc.  Dealing with emotions demands cultivation of inner space . . . if we are to create space for others and

Lead with our best self.


* T. Grier and Mick, the great Yooper, spoke eloquently and clearly about the need to validate people’s strong emotions yet also for “channeling” those emotions in positive directions. Mark John and Norma worried that negative emotions — like those experienced in post World War I Germany — can be manipulated for ill.  Cathy wrote about the importance of building community trust so that we can deal with tough emotions.  I encourage you to read their full comments, which here I have so roughly summarized. Their comments are here.

  • You nailed it 11/24/2014. Thanks for synthesizing the comments and refocusing it briefly. I struggle with these issues with my kids and wife, and am just (finally) beginning to “get it” that I have to personalize and feel the emotion to really own what’s going on in order to be real, respond, reflect, wrap, embrace and realize with the child/spouse/or others what the best way forward is, solution or simple acknowledgement. I have to “hold it” to “heal it” and then “handle it, with heart.” Thanks – MM

  • Thanks for this timely article, Dan. I’ve been struggling to articulate to those whom I directly lead and my leaders that feeling _with_ is not the same as condoning or rewarding bad behavior. One of the challenges? Everyone wants immediate results, and demonstrating empathy requires time. Without quick results my leaders are concerned that the empathy method isn’t working, and those I am responsible to lead think that nothing’s being done. Unless there’s something egregious, immoral, illegal or dangerous, time is part of the equation. The empathy method is now bearing fruit, and many others have taken notice. Now the challenge is to help others see that the positive changes are connected at least partly to demonstrating empathy and didn’t just spontaneously occur.

  • I saw an interview of former president Bill Clinton on leadership. One comment he said that stuck in my mind was that when answering questions, address the emotion in it first.
    That means the person answering the question needs to go through the process you give in your article today, identifying the emotion/ emotions in the question becomes part of the thought process in answering the question.

  • Thanks Dan for this latest article. I am grateful for the input and outline on identifying any potential emotions that could positively or adversely effect an outcome with a situation. As stated Emotions are real and how I deal with any of them within our Unit, from any source can help me grow and better lead to improved ability, function and reliability in the Department. Hope to run into you on our travels on campus..

  • I am impressed, as usual, by this article. I agree wholeheartedly with the notion of creating space to listen. I experienced the need for this when my family experienced the trauma of both parents demise within an 18 month period. I became the leader of our church, while others assumed other family leadership roles. As the core of our family, my parents founded the church, I was in the unenviable position of needing to listen to everyone and everything. That proved to be the process for the church as well. People need to be allowed to feel what they feel, while being guided to appropriate methods of processing feelings, without judgement.

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