What Makes for an Emotionally Reliable Leader?

As a leader, it feels like you’re constantly under pressure. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s all too easy to respond to problems emotionally, which can make people feel like you’re Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—and they never know just who they’re going to get.

Leaders should strive to be emotionally reliable: that is, they have consistent, positive reactions to direct reports, rather than shooting from the hip. Being an emotionally reliable leader means that people won’t be afraid to tell you about problems, that they’ll trust your decisions, and that the team feels truly cohesive, rather than “every person for themselves.”

Emotionally reliable leaders have three key qualities:

  • They separate their internal weather from external conditions. They have enough self-awareness to know when they are feeling angry, hungry, anxious, stressed, or otherwise not at their best. Furthermore, they actively decide what response fits the circumstance, rather than expressing it through the lens of their current feelings.
  • They focus on the situation, not the people. When they get bad news, they don’t shoot the messenger or look for someone to blame. And in an emergency, they don’t waste time analyzing what went wrong—they jump in to help. Finding and fixing root causes happens later when heads are clearer, such as during a retro.
  • They avoid the four horsemen of the relational apocalypse: Labeling, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Over 20 years of research by the Gottman Institute has shown these four behaviors are the top ways to kill any relationship, as they encourage people to start looking for exits:
    • Labeling: “Those losers! They’re always late!” Don’t make it about the person—name the behavior or circumstance. Use “I statements” such as “I was frustrated when you showed up to our meeting late.”
    • Contempt: Tone of sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, sneering, or name-calling. An emotionally reliable leader says what they mean in words, not conveying it in tone. For instance, instead of saying “If people could be PREPARED, we wouldn’t have to go through this!” try, “I was disappointed that you didn’t plan for our meeting, and I’m concerned we won’t meet our deadline.”
    • Defensiveness: “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t my fault!” Defensiveness communicates that you aren’t really listening to them or taking their concerns seriously. If this occurs—especially when managing up—take a deep breath and paraphrase what they are saying to you to gain a moment. Then ask what they would like to see instead.
    • Stonewalling: Shutting down, not returning messages, putting distance between you. This often happens when you get overwhelmed by all of the above. To regain your composure, tell them you are taking a time out. Do something to calm yourself: go for a quick walk in nature, take some deep breaths, or look at a picture of a loved one or yes, cute animals, before returning to the discussion.

Of course, we recognize that leaders are also human! If you want to work on being a more emotionally reliable leader, grab a trusted colleague or mentor and discuss:

  • Which behaviors drives you crazy when other people do it?
  • Which one of the four horsemen do you tend to do most? What happened last time you did it? What could you do instead?
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