How to become a more emotionally engaged leader

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emotionally engaged leader

It took a shocking personal tragedy – and the empathic response of his then employer – for Gian Power to realise the potential of emotional engagement as a motivational tool. The entrepreneur and public speaker explains how sharing your feelings at work can empower others to give more of themselves

Showing emotion in the workplace can be a challenge for many people. Almost 60 per cent of 2,250 British workers surveyed by TotalJobs in January said that they struggled to express their true sentiments – particularly negative ones – at work. One-third of respondents admitted to putting on a “positive face” to hide feelings such as sadness and anger.

Business leaders can feel the pressure to remain stoic more keenly than most, as their organisations look to them for calm and focused direction. But the ability to understand and display emotion is a quality shared by many great leaders.

When I joined PwC in 2014, I had little idea about the strength of the intrinsic link between mental wellbeing and performance at work, yet it wasn’t too long before I witnessed the importance of care and empathy in the workplace at first hand. In 2015 my father flew to India on one of his regular business trips, but didn’t make the return flight.

As a result, I found myself heading an intercontinental missing persons investigation at the age of 23. I eventually learnt that dad had been murdered when a journalist informed me of the fact on a live radio show.

The support provided by two of my managers at PwC helped me through the most difficult period of my life. They were both kind and caring, showing genuine concern for my welfare. Even on the busiest of days, they would make five minutes to listen carefully to my problems.

This experience showed me why we need to make a deeper connection with our teams. As leaders, we have the ability not just to change lives but to save lives, simply by demonstrating our humanity.

With this point in mind, here are five ways to be a more emotionally engaged – and therefore more effective – leader:

1. Know yourself inside out

Before you start thinking about how to lead, you need to tune into yourself. Simply reflecting on how I’m feeling each day has been one of the most powerful tools for me professionally. Meditation has helped me greatly in understanding my emotional state. In a world that’s so hectic, having a time of quiet reflection is really important.

I had never meditated before I lost my father, but it helped me to come through an overwhelming situation in a much calmer state of mind.

For those who are too busy to meditate, simply taking 10 deep breaths before you get up in the morning and focusing on your breathing can make all the difference. Mobile apps such as Calm and Headspace are great aids for this.

2. Track your emotions

Once you’re more aware of your feelings, the next step is knowing how to regulate them. A good technique for this is what I call an emotions tracker: I regularly note down what I’m doing, the time of day and how I’m feeling. This has gradually helped me to find activities that improve my mood.

For example, I’ve found that a gym session helps to pick me up through the release of endorphins. But it can be anything that makes you feel positive, from going for a swim to watching the sun rise. Finding the things that help you to regulate these emotions can make yourself feel happier every day.

3. Remove the mask

As leaders, we need to be brave enough to display vulnerability. There’s a still a common view in the corporate world that this is a sign of weakness, which can be career-limiting, but I would argue that it is a huge strength – and that leaders need to set an example by taking off their masks.

António Horta-Osório of Lloyds Banking Group is a case in point. The bank was still recovering from the 2007-08 financial crisis when he joined as CEO in 2011, pledging to repay British taxpayers for its £20 billion bail-out. The stress of the situation resulted in his admission to a mental health clinic.

But, by speaking openly about the experience afterwards – he did a candid interview with the Sunday Times – Horta-Osório encouraged other top executives to take awareness courses on the subject. He has also helped to raise £11 million for Mental Health UK, the bank’s charity partner, since 2017.

4. Develop empathy

Empathy, which requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of others, is one of the most important leadership qualities. Daniel Goleman was one of the first psychologists to popularise the term “emotional intelligence”, or EQ, in the 1990s. He has claimed that it is twice as important as IQ at work – and that the more senior you are in your organisation, the more vital it becomes.

The best leaders I know will actively listen to you without feeling the need to respond with their own views. If people don’t have the EQ to understand one another, working as part of a team can become difficult. By listening and empathising with your team, you can create a more open and constructive dynamic.

5. Build meaningful relationships

As business leaders, we can become so goal-focused that we tend to forget about the people who are helping us to achieve them. It’s incredibly important to tune into the team. If a member seems to be out of sorts – an extrovert has gone quiet for a couple of days, for instance – ask them how they’re doing and show genuine interest in their response.

The above principles should apply whether you’re running the largest multinational or the smallest start-up. Don’t be afraid to tell your own story and use this to shape the organisation’s culture. Aneel Bhusri, co-founder and CEO of enterprise software giant Workday, went the extra mile to connect with each employee on an individual level, personally interviewing his company’s first 500 recruits.

You might not be able to go to such lengths, but becoming a more emotionally engaged leader will earn you a more loyal following. If you can manage that, they will be far more inclined to be there for you when the going gets tough.

Director April/May coverThis article can be read in the April / May 2020 issue of Director magazine

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About author

Gian Power

Gian Power

Gian Power is the founder of public-speaking collective TLC Lions, which has taken inspirational speakers to 120 employers, including HSBC, Tata and Warner Brothers. He has also founded The Unwind Experience, a business offering guided pop-up meditation sessions in the workplace.

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