“There’s no place for feelings at work!” I heard it frequently as a young engineer. Thankfully, I learned this admonition was impossible to achieve and very bad for my career. Today, after interviewing 76 effective leaders, it is clear that the skillful use of feelings is essential to leadership success. To deny feelings is to deny a key part of your intelligence. To use feelings is not about being carried away by each whim or passing flutter in your gut. It’s about having the self-awareness to discern the source of the feeling and how to constructively put it to work as a leadership asset.
Here are five skilled ways that leaders use their feelings that merit attention and practice.
1. Emotional feelings are red flags. Your nervous system is a sophisticated sensing network. Over time, your brain became hard-wired to know situations or events that run counter to what it believes it best for you. Your body, via the nervous system, picks up the warning signs and launches a red alert. Your body will hijack your brain with an old story. Left unchecked, your brain will generate a knee-jerk reaction that is unlikely to benefit your career. Effective leaders learn to recognize when an emotional feeling is coming. They develop the skills to slow down the knee-jerk reaction and rebalance the nervous system so that the cognitive brain has time to catch up. Techniques such as relaxing the face, breathing deeply or counting to ten can buy just enough time to engage the brain. This key skill allows you to separate productive feelings from those that are emotionally reactive.
2. Feelings alert you to issues you might otherwise miss. I heard it over and over from leaders. When faced with a difficult decision, leaders paid attention to their own hesitation. “Something is bugging me.” “This is just not sitting right.” They described a nagging feeling that was….well, nagging. Effective leaders pay attention to that feeling. Then they dig in. What is the feeling? Where is it telling me to probe further? What other questions should I ask? They don’t necessarily seek more data. Instead they seek more insight about the context or impact of the decision. The nagging feeling points the way to issues that transcend mountains of data.
3. Feelings align decisions with values. Effective leaders are clear on their values and principles. These values ground their decision-making. Complex decisions frequently have great latitude and range of choice. Without values, it is hard to chart a course through an open sea of options. Leaders describe searching for and trusting in the decision that is in alignment with their value system – the decision that “just feels right.” They also point out the importance of having a personal value system that aligns with the company culture. In that case, they trust their feelings to guide them to the best solution for the company and for them.
4. Feelings point to the higher goal. Early in my career, I over-thought everything (before my recovery began). Every career choice was agony. Should I or shouldn’t I? Is now the best time for a change or later? Is this the best next step or not? Over and over the options tumbled in my mind. In one instance, by boss called. Others asked that she call and ask me to stay. Instead she said, “Follow your heart.” Over time, I learned to check in with and trust my feelings. My gut seems to instinctively know the choice that is best suited for me at a particular time. My biggest career decisions were made from the gut. It required courage and trust…and a lot of hard work, but each instance brought success and life-changing experiences. My boss was right. Today, my heart points to goals and my head manages the steps to reach it.
5. Feelings underpin authentic communication. What is it about some leaders that make them seem more attentive and more human? Research shows that leaders who are better listeners are viewed as having more charisma. These leaders do more than listen for facts, dates, and results. They listen for and hear feelings. They pick up on the atmosphere in the room, the tone of voice, the comfort or discomfort of the other person. They validate discussion content and feelings – proud, frustrated, exhausted, striving. It’s the feeling that makes real communication happen between person to person instead of from boss to employee.
The next time you try to push your feelings aside…stop. Consider the wisdom they bring, unravel their message and put them to work to create more effective leadership.