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Emotion at work: displaying emotional investment pays dividends for leaders

Like most Australians I’ve been glued to my TV (and twitter and internet) this week watching the human tragedy and devastation of the Queensland floods unfold.  I never imagined in my wildest dreams seeing so much water where dry land should be.  And I never imagined I’d become such an ardent admirer of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh. Before the floods hit, Bligh’s career was considered… well… washed out.  She became Australia’sfirst elected female Premier in 2009 and since then her Government’s policies and performance made her re-election virtually unthinkable.  But like many Australians, I’ve watched Bligh become the face of authority in the current crisis.

For days on end Anna Bligh has fronted at several press conferences a day to inform and update the public, demonstrating a remarkable grasp of the situation and the specifics of those affected. She has answered questions in detail, with clarity and compassion, rarely deferring to others on matters of technical detail.  When Bligh has spoken, I have believe and responded to her calls to action; and when she shed a tear yesterday I cried along with her.


Much has been said about the role of emotion in leadership, and the emotions of women at work.  Despite a growing understanding emotional intelligence and the role that self-awareness, empathy and social skill play in leadership (traits that women naturally possess in spades), it’s a common complaint that women are still considered too emotional for the top jobs. In most organisations, it’s accepted that if you want to get ahead you must learn to mask your emotions – good and bad – and above all appear level-headed at all times. And every woman knows that crying at work is tantamount to career suicide…

But organisations are, by nature, emotional places and Bligh has shown this week that displays of emotional investment can actually work to your advantage, provided you’ve got the goods to back it up.

So next time you’re about to offer advice to someone about managing their emotions at work, consider these 5 important facts:

  1. Leaders inspire through emotions and today more than ever, leadership isn’t about what leaders say, it’s about how they make people feel.  Displaying emotion enables leaders to connect with the feelings of their people in a way that humanizes leadership and encourages followers.
  2. Humans are emotional creatures and our intelligence, productivity and performance is a function of complex, inter-related emotions. When we bring our full selves to work – which has been known toimprove innovation and product design – our emotions will follow.  Attempting to leave emotions at the door will result in leaving significant other aspects of your productivity there too.
  3. Research shows that those who display emotions at work with greater amplitude and frequency engender increased levels of trust – or put more simply, emotional people are more believable.
  4. Customers make purchases based on emotion so understanding and tapping in to these emotions is critical to success – especially the emotions of women, who control 80% of consumer spending decisions. 
  5. Displaying your emotional investment need not diminish the perception of your performance.  In fact, in aSydney Morning Herald survey of some 42,000 readers this week, 83 per cent rated Bligh’s performance as outstanding –  the best leadership news she could have wished for, and proof indeed that there is a place for emotion at work.


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