Women leaders are scrutinized at work for how they handle emotional situations. To be successful, follow these five tips to improve your emotional finesse.
- Be emotionally flexible
One of the biggest challenges for women leaders is to navigate the fine line between being “too strong and decisive” (a.k.a. masculine) and “too friendly and nice” (a.k.a. feminine). Eagly and Carli call this the “double bind” in their book, Through the Labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders. In other words, it’s important to be able to flex your leadership style and hence your emotional expression. Learn the contexts in which expressing warmth is beneficial and when stern would be a better approach. Learn which people need friendliness and have earned your trust and which people would do better with a firm handshake. Practice being able to move in and out of these modalities so people respect you as both a leader and a woman.
- Acknowledge the limitations of rational thinking
“But it’s a rational decision!” “Why don’t they see it’s clear from the data?” Even rational, data-driven decisions involve emotions. Data can be disappointing and saving face might be important. Emotions are there whether we like it or not. Assuming people will check their emotions at the door is like wearing blinders into the workplace. By acknowledging that emotions are present, you are taking more information into consideration when you plan your strategy and make decisions. The book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a great resource.
- Look for signs of emotions
As a leader, it is particularly important to take note of where others in the room are coming from. Are they in agreement? Are two team members not getting along? Does your team suffer from a lack of motivation? Use your senses to “feel the temperature in the room.” The first sense is sight. Use your eyes to see how are people are sitting. Are they slumped back, facing away from each other (or you), avoiding eye contact, crossing their arms, or frowning? This is valuable information for you to use as you try to influence the team. If there’s a lot of negativity in the room, you’ll need to start from a different place than if people are in alignment. Too many leaders skip this step and find themselves floundering in deep water without understanding why.
- Learn how to talk about emotions
It’s hard to talk about emotions and most of us aren’t very good at it. Moreover, as women leaders, we may fight the temptation to talk about emotions to avoid being negatively stereotyped. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Women (and men) who are able to articulate their own and others’ feelings tend to be effective leaders because they connect with people and manage difficult situations. Talking about emotions doesn’t have to sound soft. Look at these examples. “That sounds frustrating.” “I’m anxious about the upcoming deadline.” “I’m really glad you’re back. We missed you while you were gone.” “It’s crushing to lose a sale that big. How are you handling it?”
- Allow people to express emotions
Have you ever been in a meeting where nothing got done because there was an underlying tension that kept people from being productive? Sometimes it helps to start a meeting with a 10-minute check-in or vent. If you give people a chance to let it out, they can get it out of their system and move on and stay focused. The key to success in this situation is to close the vent or celebration session and tell people it’s time to get down to business. Usually, people are calmer and can move on. If someone is holding on, however, you may need to invite them to take a break and come back when they’re ready or offer to set up a one-on-one after the meeting.