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3 Ways To Handle Emotions Better As a Leader


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Emotions Are Driving Everything You Want As a Leader

The science on social interaction and human behavior in the workplace - and decisions in general - says that emotions are actually the key driver of our decisions and our behaviors.

Our conscious mind is just the rationalizer. Our conscious mind is just the one who picks up on the underneath emotional subconscious impulse of the decision we really want. And then rationalizes that decision; makes sense of that decision.

Let's take a simple example about ice cream. Let's say after a long day's work you're in front of an ice cream stand. You're thinking about whether to get that ice cream or not. But the thing is, you're on a diet. Now what's going to happen? If your subconscious really wants that ice cream what's going to happen is the impulse is going to fire inside. You're going to get that ice cream. The decision has been made. By your subconscious. Aad then what your mind does, is have thoughts, like, "you know what, I've been really good on my diet. I deserve this ice cream I can afford to have this ice cream. And I've worked really hard today. This is a nice little reward for myself. I'm going to get this ice cream and I'm going to enjoy it. It's good to have joy in your life. It's good to have pleasure in your life. I'm going to get this ice cream."

Now most of us, what they think just happened was that we had thoughts that led us to our decision. But that's not what actually happened. What actually happened is our subconscious decided. And our brain just caught up with its own rationalization. Its own sense-making of what happened inside. That's going on in humans all the time.

Including on teams. When people are deciding:

  • What are they going to put their energy into?

  • What are they going to say in a meeting?

  • How are they going to interact with their leader?

  • How are they going to interact with their colleagues?

  • How willing are they to collaborate?

  • How are they going to interact with clients and customers?

  • How are they going to do their work?

  • How are they going to show up?

All of these questions are answered by the person's subconscious. Until they learn to work with their subconscious, until they learn to work with their emotions and make what's hidden, unhidden - until they learn to unearth the hidden parts of themselves and see them clearly with their conscious mind - until they learn to do that their subconscious and their emotions are making the decisions. And they are following those decisions.

If you're a leader of a team, if you're a leader of an organization and you are NOT directly looking at, taking on, handling, asking for the emotions and feelings that are going on with the people around you, the people in your team, and the people in your organization, then you are NOT accessing what's actually driving all those people.

You're not getting to the layer in the people you're working with of what's driving their decisions. And what's driving how they're showing up. You are handcuffing yourself.

You are:

  • handcuffing your ability to be effective

  • handcuffing your ability to motivate

  • handcuffing your ability to connect with the people around you.

  • handcuffing your ability to generate trust.

Because you're only playing on the surface. You're not going deeper and connecting at a deeper level. The level of feeling with people.

Trust is a feeling. Engagement is a feeling. Excitement about work and energy for work - those are feeling states. If you, as a leader are not able to access those feeling states, you're not going to be able to create those emotional experiences.

Those are the emotional experiences you want for people to show up and give their best. For people to be willing to share the new ideas, for people to be willing to challenge, to give honest feedback, to show up every day. Those are the kinds of emotional experiences we want to create as leaders so that people don't start quite quitting on us.

We need to access the emotional layer to get the best of ourselves and the best for our team and do our highest quality work.

The reason most leaders do not do this is because they've never been trained. They just don't know how. No one told them it was important. In all our economics classes, in all our marketing classes, in all our leadership classes, how much time is given to what emotions are, how they actually work? So little time.

This is a huge mistake. Emotional intelligence, which is the general field we're talking about here, is getting more popular and has been getting more popular for years. But how much of emotional intelligence training is actually covers talking about, addressing, facing, handling, and unearthing the emotions that are in the room? That needs to be addressed.

Just as important - how do you turn those emotions - no matter what they are, whether they're emotions that seem negative or emotions that seem positive - how do you turn those emotions into something useful? Into something that builds trust into something that builds engagement? Into something that builds momentum? Into something that increases team collaboration?

That should be number one in any leadership curriculum. And at The Change Tribe it's central to so much of what we're doing. You have to understand the emotional game. If you want to lead effectively. And efficiently. And get the outcomes you really want in the fastest way possible. Because emotions are driving everything.

So, how do we do that?

Leader handling emotions
Emotional leader photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash

How can we start working with and handling emotions better as a leader?

1. Work With Your Own Emotions

The first thing you need to do is understand your own emotions and how your own emotional landscape works.

If you're not doing your own personal, emotional work, you're making this much more difficult for yourself because you need to understand how your own triggers work. You need to understand how your own stress activations and behaviors happen. You need to understand how to help difficult emotions calm down, learn how to not react from them. Learn how to help them heal in the body. So that you have a different emotional experience inside yourself. You need to learn how to do that for yourself. And then you can start to do that with your team. And individuals on your team.

This is not about you being a therapist. Or getting some type of therapy training. No. It's much, much more simple than that. And you never have to take on the emotions of a teammate as if you are a therapist. You're not there to try to solve their emotional problems. No. But if you are not aware of the emotions affecting them in their work, and driving their decisions and behaviors, how are you going to lead them effectively? You need to at least be aware. And gaining that awareness starts with you working on yourself and getting the awareness of how your own emotional system works and your own energy works.

If you want to get started on this there are obviously many resources you could turn to. Online, you can look up articles about emotional processing. You can look up articles about emotional healing. You can find many techniques to help you with this.

One way to start now: on our website we have a free tool called The Energy Audit, and this will help you understand your internal feelings and emotional relationship to the work you have and the different work that you're doing. It will help you diagram that and categorize that. So you can see where your energy gets lit up and where your energy gets drained. That is the first place to start when trying to access the emotional experience that you are having, or the people around you are having.

It's literally as simple as - what's energizing you and what's draining you? The Energy Audit will walk you through exercises you can do for yourself. And you can give that tool to others as well. You can start this conversation in a clearer, more intelligent way. And you can start to get to what's underneath the surface for people making their decisions and driving their behavior.

2. Make Space for Emotional Expression

Once you start to work on yourself and you get more comfortable with that you will naturally become more comfortable in talking about feeling states and emotional states in your work. With your team. And that is essential. As we discussed. A very simple way to start is just do an emotional check-in. When you start a team meeting, just ask people how they're feeling emotionally at the moment of arriving to the meeting.

The advantage of this is that people feel seen, validated and heard. Now, whatever anybody says, when you ask them for an emotional check-in, it is not the moment to go into it or dive into it. You're not trying to solve anybody's problem or make them feel differently. You're not trying to fix any situation.

This is one reason leaders get so nervous about working with emotions is they think that, oh, I have to make people feel differently. And that's an incredibly hard, almost impossible thing to do in a single moment. You don't have to do that. You do not have to fix the emotions of yourself and your team. It is not about forcing them to feel differently. It is about allowing those emotions to be there, to let them be seen. What you will find ,if you just give them space, is that people will naturally start to feel differently.

First of all, they'll feel like they trust you more. They'll feel more accepted. They'll feel more welcomed. And you can start generating that experience of engagement literally just by allowing emotions in the room. It's really that simple.

You'll see for yourself, do an emotional check-in at the start of a team meeting. Ask people how they're feeling. You might ask for a word that names an emotion, a word for how they're feeling or you might ask them to just give a 1 to 10 rating.

I've also seen leaders say, "Give us a rating on a scale of one to five for how you're feeling personally and how you're feeling professionally." And each person, just goes around the table or the zoom call, and just says something like, "I'm a three personally. I'm a five professionally today." That's it. You don't even have to ask why. Some people don't even want to say why. It's okay. But watch how the energy changes in a room.

Watch how the trust changes on a team when you at least start having that conversation.

3. Model Making Emotions Normal

The third thing you can do is lead the way in modeling a new way of speaking. In team meetings and with your team, you can lead the way in modeling expressing what emotions are happening.

Many leaders I've worked with never mention the actual emotional experiences they're having with their teammates. They think they need to shield their team from it. Some just never even think to mention it. They don't see how it's important. Some just only know how to stick to the work discussions, and they want to stick to the work discussions because that feels safer and that feels easier. That's what they know. That's more certain because when you start getting into feelings, you're never sure exactly what's going to happen.

So it's really fear itself stopping this. It's really an emotion that's stopping more emotional intelligence at work. The emotion is fear. It's okay, other people feel the same way.

It's going to feel a little bit vulnerable to express yourself more fully at work. Some people will love it right away. Some people will feel more vulnerable. So you, as a leader can make the space safer by leading the way in modeling what that behavior looks like.

You can share things like, "I'm a little nervous about this project. I'm feeling a little anxiety in my stomach about this. I have confidence that we're going to get it done. Just noticing that there's some tension here. It doesn't seem like we're exactly on track."

How easy was that? You're more human now. There is more energy in the room. And it's still work-focused and driving to solutions.

And now other people are realizing, "You know what? I feel some tension about this project too." And maybe they'll say that. And maybe they'll really appreciate the fact that you said that because nobody was actually saying that. No one's saying that because stress is supposedly normal. And they're just getting on with their work and trying to get it done. Now you name it out loud and all of a sudden it's, "Oh yeah, me too. Let's look this. Maybe there's a different way we can do this. Maybe we can find a way to feel good about this."

So even with a difficult emotion, you can - once it's named and shared - you can always move the discussion into, "Okay, how can we feel great about this? How can we shift this?"

That's a simple, powerful question. Most leaders never ask it.

If you let people name their ideal emotional experience, you will find a whole new piece of energy is available. A whole piece of energy is unlocked.

And an added bonus is, when you appear more vulnerable, people naturally will want to help and support you.

People in general are good. People in general, want to help and support. In fact, according to the research, supporting our peers at work is one of the most satisfying things about work. Social support is a key ingredient in both psychological safety and engagement. You invite social support when you are able to express your authentic, emotional experience.

Now, of course, some people are going to object to this. "I can't tell the team if I'm really sad or I'm having a really bad day or if I'm depressed or something, I have to keep that to myself."

You definitely don't have to let out anything dark. You don't have to turn your discussion with your team into how you would talk with your closest friends or your therapist. Of course not. Nobody is saying that. But if you're feeling down on a certain day, or low energy, it's perfectly fine to say, "Hey, I'm having a little bit of a difficult day."

And then maybe that'll give you a pause and you'll realize, oh, we can start this meeting a little bit differently. Maybe there's some way we can start this meeting that's a little bit fun. Or that would be a little bit energizing or that would be a little bit helpful.

Of course, we don't want to load up other people with difficult emotional burdens or negative emotions to carry. So you're not asking them to solve these emotions for you. You're not asking them to do anything about it. But guess what, everybody on the team is going to have a down day. And when it's okay for that to be named, then it's okay for that to be addressed in some way. and that lets the workplace be more human and that lets more energy into the workplace.

People will feel more supported. They'll feel safer. And they'll feel like this place welcomes me. It allows me to be who I really am. That's going to make them want to stay and give their best. That's going to make them perform even better on their normal days.

An Invitation For You

So these are three ways you can get started. Simple ways. That we encourage you to get started with, because if you are not playing the emotional game as a leader, you're not playing the real game. You're only playing a surface level game, and you're only going to get so far.

We want you to go all the way. We want you to create amazing workplaces and amazing teams and amazing environments. That create exceptional results. And to get there you need the emotional energy. Because the emotional energy is what's driving behaviors and decisions.

If you would like more information on this, if you would like to talk to us about this, or if you would like to argue with us about this, or have a different opinion about this, you can come to our live next live show! On Thursday. May 16th, that's called "Why don't leaders take on feelings and emotions and teams?"

We're going to discuss this in more detail. You can ask your questions, share your thoughts. We would love to see you on that live show. It's much more fun in these discussions, when people like you show up live and ask questions. It's a great experience for all. So we invite you to join us on that live show. Here's the link again.

Thank you very much for reading.


David Papa of The Change Tribe

PS - The old way of doing business is failing. It's not serving people. It's not serving clients. It's not serving the planet. It's not serving results. You can change all this.

You can become a Data-driven, People-savvy, High-vibe Leadership Team creating a beautifully successful organisation in today's world, you need 4 things: 

  1. Actionable data about what truly energises your people (because then they will solve, problems, have new ideas, and create all the happy customers)

  2. A map of how your workplace culture operates (because your culture is driving what you create and execute)

  3. A roadmap to close the culture gap and move your organisation into its highest version (this is how you get more profit and more impact)

  4. The behaviour change skills to communicate, motivate, and get people through any obstacle and resistance faster (because obstacles always show up)

That’s what we do. 

We help Leadership Teams work smarter and deeper with better data and higher vibes. We help you create the change you need. We help you light up your people, get more wins, and create a thriving business that makes the world better. Hell yes. 


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