Leading with Emotional Tolerance

Leading and feeling are mutually exclusive? On the contrary: Those who learn to be hosts to their own feelings, and to the feelings of employees, will open up a space for creativity and innovation.

November 4, 2020

by Ricarda Sick

One of these past gray and rainy days, I decided to make something of this cozy mood and withdrew to the couch with a few magazines and a delicious drink. While browsing, I found an article in Neue Narrativen, Issue #03, particularly captivating: “Führungskräfte der Zukunft brauchen emotionale Agilität” [“The managers of tomorrow need emotional agility”].

“Exactly,” I thought to myself at once. I read about fear and anger as strong forces that can create innovations if we allow ourselves to acknowledge these feelings. Even more: If we take a closer look and consider what these feelings have to do with us, the first thing we need to do is achieve a shift in the attitude we have toward our feelings. Jones Kortz, the author of the article, explains in wonderfully vivid detail what happens when, perceiving strong feelings, we locate these feelings with ourselves and consider what triggered a particular strong feeling in us in the respective situation. This is how we can keep our feelings from dominating us and keep, as he puts it, from becoming “victims of our feelings.”

And here comes my favorite insight: If we succeed in this reversal and understand that we HAVE feelings but ARE not our feelings, that is when we have learned to be hosts to our feelings. Hosts to our feelings! How wonderful! What a delightful image! Sometimes you are a host even if you have not invited someone over for a visit. As a good host, I kindly greet the guest and grant him/her permission to stay with me for a while. And that is exactly how I now approach the feeling that suddenly shows up for a visit in a particular situation: I grant it permission, determine what it needs at the moment, in order to let it go again. A clarifying conversation, for instance, a fresh idea, a new arrangement, or agreement.

So, what does this have to do with leadership? It is still a widely held belief that leading and feeling have nothing to do with each other. I am convinced – and incidentally, so is the author of the article – that the times, especially when they are as difficult as these, call for leadership with empathy and emotional tolerance. If a manager tolerates the different feelings of his or her employees and can understand and accept his or her own feelings at the same time, this creates the best conditions for creating the safe space the manager’s own team needs to work together on solutions to a crisis. As a host to one’s own feelings, everyone can think freely and act creatively.

Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, describes this safe space as “psychological safety.” This is an atmosphere that allows for questioning, curiosity and the taking of a position while also granting permission to admit when mistakes are made. Psychological safety is, among other things, a crucial prerequisite for successful learning processes, the practice of diversity and successful collaboration in teams. This finding was confirmed by Google’s “Project Aristotle” (2016): Psychological safety is one of the most important factors for the success of high-performing teams. Not the other criteria examined, such as team composition, team size, spatial proximity to one another, team members’ educational levels, etc., were decisive to high team performance. Instead, it was psychological safety that proved the most important factor in establishing a productive team.

So, if the manager assumes the model role as host to his or her own feelings – and makes these transparent – they can create this safe space in which employees can show their own feelings, too, even if they are not physically sitting in the same room. But acknowledging one’s own feelings is the prerequisite for a shift in perspective toward the feelings of others and thus offers an opportunity for greater openness and diversity within the team. Permission to exhibit even feelings of vulnerability gives rise to trust, which in turn makes it possible to work fearlessly on unconventional solutions and experiment with new ideas.

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Delizonna, Laura: High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Duhigg, Charles: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team: New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter. New York Times, The Work Issue, 25.02.2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?smid=pl-share

Edmondson, Amy C.: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2018.

Kortz, Jones: Führen kommt von Fühlen: Führungskräfte der Zukunft brauchen emotionale Agilität. Neue Narrative, Berlin, 03/2020, S. 44 – 47.

reWork with Google: Guide: Understand team effektiveness, https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/introduction/