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A leader’s guide to managing emotions at work

Regulating team moods is one of the most important roles for leaders, but they can pay a heavy price. Here are a few tips on how to be effective and avoid burn-out.

Forget balance sheets and business plans – one of the most important factors of a business leader’s success could be their ability to manage people’s moods.

According to Professor Neal Ashkanasy of The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, many managers fail to acknowledge the importance of emotions in the workplace.

“Conventional wisdom assumes that people leave their feelings at home and are completely rational at work. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Neal.

“Humans constantly make decisions with no rational basis and much of our behaviour is driven by emotion. A manager’s role is to set the emotional tone for the team. Research suggests that mood management may be one of the most critical elements of leadership.”

However trying to regulate a team’s emotions can be like trying to stop the common cold. Research has shown that moods are like viruses – they spread from one person to another through a process known as ‘emotional contagion’.

As employees become ‘infected’, they start to mimic facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. What started out as one person having a bad day can lower the morale of the whole team, which can then influence judgement and decision making.

In one experiment by Wharton Business School, Professor Sigal Barsade, groups of students were given the task of deciding how best to allocate a limited pot of funds. Within each group was a ‘plant’ – an actor whose role was to spread a different emotion. Where the plant spread a positive emotion, the group experienced a more positive mood, were more cooperative and allocated the money more fairly. When questioned, members attributed their success to other factors and had no idea that they had been ‘infected’.

Emotional contagion is a way for team leaders to transfer emotional states to staff and create a positive culture. However, the opposite can also happen and leaders can be ‘infected’ by followers.

“Leaders need to manage emotional contagion or the effect can spiral out of control,” warns Neal. “Emotional intelligence is key. Emotionally intelligent leaders can understand and manage their own emotions better, and those of others. They can pick up clues that others miss. They tend to perform more effectively and feel more confident in their role.”

Training can help managers build practical skills. For example, looking people in the eye can help spread a positive mood more quickly, while limiting eye contact can help prevent ‘contagion’. Neal also suggests that leaders learn to recognise micro-expressions – the involuntary and fleeting facial expressions that expose a person’s true emotions.

In fact, the ability to help people deal with emotions is a key skill of transformational leaders. Studies have shown how such leaders boost performance by helping team members cope with everyday frustrations and negativity and engendering a spirit of optimism.

However, regulating others’ emotions requires leaders to suppress their own feelings, and they can pay a high price. Being cheerful in the face of adversity, appearing calm and controlled when you may be worried or angry, listening to people’s problems and feigning interest in their family affairs requires us to fake emotions that we don’t feel.

This type of ‘emotional labour’ may be necessary to maintain harmony, but it can be stressful and exhausting. That is because genuine expressions of emotion come from the amygdala, a part of the brain that shapes our basic impulses, and trying to override these quickly depletes our resources.

Constantly supressing your emotions can lead to insomnia, anxiety, exhaustion and reduced willpower, which can result in problems with alcohol or overeating.

“While emotional labour is usually associated with customer-facing roles – such as shop assistants or flight attendants delivering ‘service with a smile’ – it affects leaders too, and they need to be aware of the risk,” says Neal.

“One way to reduce the tension is through ‘deep acting’, which has been shown to have less harmful effects than ‘surface acting’ or the sense that you are faking it, and it can also be more effective.

“Rather than faking a smile, try to enjoy what you are doing. Like a method actor, try to connect to the emotions you are trying to express by recalling a time when you genuinely felt them,” he says.

“Leaders need to practice ‘leading with emotional labour’ and regulating their own feelings. Genuine emotional expression – or at least deep acting – can also have greater impact as it is more likely to be picked up by members and adopted by the whole team.”

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