Beware the Handy Emotions

DecisionToo much of a good thing is too much of a good thing.  That applies to everything in life, doesn’t it?  Lovely red wine that’s healthy for the body can become too much red wine that causes accidents.  Overdone exercise can become a cause of injuries.  Doting on children can lead to irresponsible adults.  The balance is always difficult.

And so it is with the advice to extend your emotions as a leader.  On balance, wonderful things happen when you operate from your best emotional self in the tricky interpersonal relationships that are the crux of leadership.  And yet, we can’t take for granted that just ‘more of’ means ‘better’.

There’s been so much written (even by this author) about the value of exerting our emotional selves that we can begin to simply apply the handy emotions that present themselves to us in the moment.  But emotional waters are complex, and applying emotions requires thoughtful usage, not a resort to the easy answers of the latest guru.

Especially in some emotions, easy emotional responses cause tricky undercurrents that leaders need to examine.  Let’s look at a few of those.

Empathy.  Empathy is a wonderful tool, when used in the right situations.  When you have a misunderstanding or conflict with someone, thoughtful application of empathy helps you to see the situation from another perspective, and gives you a greater ability to adjust your responses to multiple potential realities, instead of fixating on one interpretation of someone’s behavior.

But as Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes, unthinking empathy has downsides.  If we feel someone’s pain too much, we may take it on or excuse someone’s legitimate failings because of it.  We may overweight it in decisions, biasing our responses beyond what is reasonable.  Being empathetic can begin to feel morally right, and we can sometimes use the act of empathy to dismiss a more systemic underlying problem.  “I really understand where Jim is coming from in feeling we’ve neglected the customer service peoples’ concerns.  I think they are really over-stressed in dealing with the volume they have.” – and neglecting the foundational problem that the customer service reps are frustrated not with the customers, but with their boss.

Optimism.  There’s no question that optimistic leaders are more attractive leaders, and that they get more done over time.  Their positivism is infectious. Yet optimism can become, when used without thoughtful consideration, platitudes.  “I just know things will get better with the next software iteration.”  “We’ve done it before; we can do it again.”  People love optimism, yet they are skeptical of those who purvey it.  They want to see the truth behind the optimism.  So when using optimism, leaders need to be sure they are planting the seeds that make the desired future come to fruition.

“We’ve done this before; we can do it again” gets added language: “and what has always served us well is our helping each other when we have less on our plates; when we’ve broken down the silos to assure everyone wins.”  And that added language needs to ring true.  If you don’t have people nodding their heads in confirmed agreement, you haven’t achieved the benefit of your optimism.

Curiosity.  Curious leaders have a knack for making people feel valued.  They ask questions out of true interest, and explore novel ideas.  Others enjoy being included in their musings, and they love being the object of your explorations into their lives, their passions, and their ideas.

But we all know the adage about what killed the cat, so leaders also need to be sensitive to where there are boundaries in curiosity.  Your curiosity can make someone feel uncomfortable when you cross a line into what she sees as private, or if your questions are ones she feels ill-equipped to answer.  At that point your curiosity is no longer an asset; it’s an intrusion.  A wise leader is alert to body language, cultural differences, and unspecific responses that may signal a good time to back off the questions.


Good leaders know that emotions are not a blunt instrument.  They are cautious of ‘negative’ emotions like anger and indignation, knowing there are pitfalls in expressing them.  And they have learned that even the most people-friendly emotions present landmines when expressed without forethought and nuance.  Emotions are not monolithic; they offer a wide range of variation.  So before you pick up your handy emotional tool, take a moment to think through exactly how you want to apply it.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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