Why Emotions Matter In Today’s Leadership


In recent years, there’s been a growing focus on the importance of emotional intelligence in today’s leadership. Of why those in leadership positions need to rely less on their technical competencies and knowledge, and more on how to go about building relationships with those under their care – both to better connect the overarching vision of the organization to the internal needs of their employees, as well as to ensure a clearer understanding of the realities found within their workplace.

To date, there have been numerous studies that have shown the growing expectations employees have on their leaders to demonstrate a greater proficiency in leading people over managing tasks. Indeed, findings like those from Google’s Project Oxygen have proven conclusively that the key to succeeding in leadership today is not in those hard skills of yesteryear, but in the so-called soft skills of empathy, compassion, and self-awareness.

Thanks to work being done to understand how our brain creates, consolidates, and retrieves memories of emotional events, we can further appreciate why this is becoming more and more critical to succeeding in today’s faster-paced, global environment.

Research into how memories are created and recalled have shown that there’s a clear difference to this process between regular memories and memories involving an emotional experience or response. Specifically, what researchers have found is that when emotions are tied to a particular memory, we have a stronger recollection of that event.

Consider, for example, when a major news event happens in our country – each of us can easily remember months and even years later where we were when we first heard the news. By comparison, few of us could remember what we ate for dinner on Tuesday two or three weeks ago.

However, while our emotions might help us to easily recall a past event or circumstance, research from the neuroscience field has also shown that this strengthening of our memories comes at the expense of getting the details right.

Neuroscientists have found that when it comes to creating memories around an event that sparks an emotional response, our brain experiences a form of tunnel vision where our focus becomes so sharp for certain details that we end up overlooking others which at that time might have seemed unimportant or unrelated.

In other words, the more our emotional state is associated with remembering a situation or event, the more our brain focuses on the central aspect of the event at the expense of taking into account the context of the larger picture.

What’s particularly interesting about these findings is that while our emotions strengthen our ability to recall this moment days and months later, it also makes us feel confident about how we remember both the central and peripheral details surrounding that event. So when presented with evidence that proves we got certain details in our memory wrong about a topic or situation, we have a hard time believing it because of that strong emotional context.

What’s more, a recent study has shown that our emotions can retroactively modify a given set of memories that we might have about a person, a group, or a situation as a result of creating a more recent emotional memory about that subject.

Consider, for example, how when we have a negative encounter with a particular individual, our past memories of previous encounters with this individual not only become more prominent, but they also take on a more negative connotation that serves to reinforce our new perception of this individual.

Taken together, what these findings from the neuroscience field reveal is that our emotions not only influence what our brain focuses on, but it can also completely change how we remember details that are related to a given moment or event. They also serve to point out that we can’t know for certain which details those around us may or may not remember going forward.

In other words, instead of our memories being a series of mental photographs, our memories – especially those influenced by our emotional state – are more like paintings that reflect our personal perception than the reality of how things are.

Going back to this growing focus on the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, what these studies reveal is why we can’t discount the critical role emotions play in today’s workplaces. Not just in how we communicate and relate to those under our care, but also in how our employees’ recollections of past events and situations can shape their understanding and participation in future efforts within our organization.

Although in the past we might have been able to rely on technical or mechanical elements to give our organization a leading edge, the rapid pace of technological development has now levelled that playing field. Consequently, understanding how our emotions impact not only how we communicate, but how we remember past conversations and meetings is fast becoming an increasingly important differentiator to rising above the competition.

The fact that our memories are so malleable and easily altered by our emotions – not to mention how our emotional state can be influenced by those we surround ourselves with – it becomes clear why we need to increase our self-awareness about the impact our actions and words have on those around us because how we remember things might not be the same as how those we lead remember or experience them.

These studies help to illustrate how the emotional environment our leadership creates serves to shape the realities of those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. It influences not only what our employees focus on as a result of our actions and words, but also what it brings into the forefront from their past experiences. Of what actions and behaviours they see as being truly valued in our organization, as well as what they understand to be the keys to moving up the organizational ladder.

Our emotional memories help to reveal what we value, what matters to us and what we care about [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter], elements that are becoming increasingly important to the process of how to build and sustain employee engagement around an organization’s shared purpose.

By connecting what matters to our employees with the long-term goals of our organization, the motivation and drive to push ahead, to take on the challenges of today to achieve the successes of tomorrow becomes an internally-driven process, as opposed to one that requires the addition of new perks and rewards to keep employees engaged and interested.

These findings also cement the truth of why the command-and-control style of leadership is no longer effective given how we can’t lean on our positional authority to assume our perspective and memories are correct [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

When a conflict in narration or facts occurs between our viewpoint and those under our care, we need to rise above the sense of certainty and assurance engendered by the emotional context encapsulating our memories and openly question what’s behind this disparity. We need to ask ourselves why do our memories, perceptions, and experiences differ from those around us and what does this reveal about our understanding of what’s really going on.

In other words, we need to treat these moments as opportunities to assess how close to the truth we are and what measures we need to deploy to shorten the gap.

As these studies prove, as much as we might like to view ourselves and our leadership through this Spock-like lens of pure rationality and logic and claim it’s not personal, it’s just business, the truth is that it is very much personal as our memories are less a record of fact than a way for us to create a sense of meaning for how we see and understand the world.

No doubt this is why a common habit shared among successful leaders is getting out from behind their desks and walking around their organization – not simply to be seen, but so that others can be heard. So that they can learn and understand what’s the reality of those they serve, and how it aligns with their own perceptions and understandings created from looking over the various spreadsheets, reports, and emails that cross their desks.

These studies reveal why successful leaders focus on building relationships, connecting with people at an emotional level [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] – that they demonstrate that care and concern to not only do right by them, but that they do right by the organization that they bear the responsibility to lead.

After all, if people don’t feel a connection to us, if they don’t feel that our focus is outward on them instead of inward on us, how can we expect them to help us understand when our memories are failing us because of the emotional context our brain has created?

How can we resolve the doubts about our credibility and trust that manifest themselves when what we state to be true differs from the truth all around us if we can’t gain the support of those we lead to help us correct our understandings and perceptions?

Ultimately, what this comes down to and what the various studies from the neuroscience field help us to better appreciate is that our leadership is not defined by us, but through the memories and experiences of those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

And this brings us back to the fundamental truth of succeeding at leadership today – that it’s not about serving our own wants and needs, but about how we can help those under our care to attain that level of success and fulfillment that fuels their drive to do better and to be better going forward.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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