Should you wear your heart on your sleeve at work?

Two male colleagues have a disagreement in the office whilst others look on

If you say you "wear your heart on your sleeve", it is often misconstrued as meaning you let your emotions run out of control. In truth, it means to openly show how you're feeling, to be transparent, to be true to yourself. But is this appropriate in the workplace? What place does emotion have in business?

Creating psychological safety

Excesses of any emotional hue usually indicate a lack of control, and emotional outbursts are rarely constructive. Unpredictable behaviour also has a destabilising effect at work.

That said, research has shown the importance of creating a working environment which is 'psychologically safe.' By this we mean an environment where people can speak openly without fear of negative repercussions. The improved atmosphere leads to greater employee engagement, increased learning from one another, and better team innovation.

Henry Stewart, creator of "The Happy Manifesto", believes that people do their best work when they feel good about themselves. Therefore, the role of a leader is to create a positive, fulfilling work environment. And with good reason, since those businesses enjoying 'best places to work' status outperform their peers.

Winning hearts and minds

Figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther-King are often cited for the power of their oration. Indeed, research by Falbe and Yukl showed this inspirational form of influence results in 90% commitment, 10% compliance and 0% resistance.

Compare that with a leader who uses power to enforce: 0% commitment, 56% compliance, 44% resistance. Emotions win outright if engagement matters in your business.

More recently, neuroscientist Tali Sharot in her book "The Influential Mind" demonstrates that emotion has a much bigger impact on us than reason and data, challenging some of our most firmly held beliefs about how to influence others.

Keeping emotions under wraps

Let's be honest, no matter how hard you may try to conceal your anger, frustration or surprise, these emotions leak out. Our brain, designed to protect us from real or perceived threat, perceives non-verbal signals: the boss whose face is red and whose hands are wringing, despite calmly stating: "Everything is fine."

Emotions are contagious. A boss that rules with an iron fist is likely to create a climate of compliance and fear that's terrible to work in, and where few can give their best.

How to be a great leader

Often leaders create a steely or aloof façade in an attempt to keep their emotions hidden. Known as 'Low Reactors', they believe that keeping the lid on their id will prevent any weaknesses or vulnerabilities from seeping out.

However, a low-reacting leader or manager in business can cause many negative consequences:

  • failure to recognise achievement or effort;
  • difficulty building rapport;
  • appearing detached and indifferent;
  • creating anxiety in others;
  • delaying decision-making because people are uncertain of their position.

They can create a sense of distance between themselves and other employees, negatively impacting on their perceived trustworthiness.

In his seminal work "Good to Great", Jim Collins describes the factors that differentiate great companies from the rest. One of these is 'Level 5 Leadership', where leaders have a 'paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.' These leaders are happy to share their shortcomings. Contrary to macho opinion, humility is not a sign of weakness.

Employees these days expect to have a form of connection with their bosses. People need people. Successful leaders connect with employees directly, personally and emotionally, gaining loyalty and commitment in return.

With thanks to Ally Yates, author of 'Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business'.

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