Leadership is relationship based, therefore true leadership uses emotions

Gillian Breckell
3 min readSep 18, 2022

Often we are advised to check our emotions at the door when we come to work. Coming into a work environment where there is a calm and stable environment, interactive discussion and debate, and a sense of security is an amazing experience to have and should exist in all workplaces. Therefore, there are significant benefits related to leaders providing a calm and stable environment, as it helps to build psychological safety. Yet, as with everything, life is too complicated to draw a hard line and we also know that there are also significant benefits to opening to the door to emotions in the workplace. Leaders need to be tuned in to how to use them.

Emotion at work — what is it and why does it matter?

Previously, we have discussed that in your career, balance is everying. Leadership requires both results and relationships, predominantly because leadership — by definition — depends on connection between people. Admittedly there are leaders who can generate results through authority or fear, however leadership is dependent on a person being able to motivate and connect others in order for results to be created. Because leadership depends on the ability to motivate and connect, leaders need to develop relationship-based career capital. Leaders who are emotionally intelligent and are compassionate with the people around them, are more likely to be able to identify concrete actions that will directly benefit and improve the workplace.

Relationship-based career capital has an economic benefit, from the most simple sense that research shows that happy employees are productive and reduce the cost of recruitment and onboarding.

Engagement and retention are key elements of a well-functioning organisation. Engaged people and teams are linked in research to lower absenteeism and higher performance, and are less likely to be looking for a new job. An organisation can invest in employee well-being and engagement, but ultimately a person’s perceived relationship with their leader can make or break those efforts. Therefore, leaders influence the engagement and retention of people in an organisation.

How can I impact emotions as a leader?

How can leaders utilise emotions? There are multiple ways that emotions can be used, and not all of them are positive or impactful. Here are a few key thoughts for emotionally intelligent leadership.

  1. Emotions help us to tune in
    When we experience emotions or observe emotions in others, it is a tuning-in mechanism that allows us to understand and communicate on a situation. Suppressing emotions is a little like switching off the traffic report on the radio and then complaining when we hit a traffic jam. It may be an inconvenient interruption at the time, but if we listen in it can avoid further and avoidable issues.
  2. Boundaries are necessary
    Just because we are tuning in to people’s emotions, does not mean that we are responsible for those emotions. What another person is experiencing or expressing is often a complicated outcome of upbringing, personality and social factors — and the emotion needs to be owned by the person expressing the emotion. It is the leader’s responsibility to listen and to have compassion for the fact an emotion is being experience.

Not all emotions are negative — remember that positively expressed emotions can also result in impact and change.

Often we forget the positive emotions — when people express pleasure, or happiness — are linked to something in the environment. Perhaps the person feels trusted, connected to a team, or has had a personal achievement. As leaders, exploring and celebrating these positive emotions also allows the leader insight into an individual and helps to build a relationship and connection. Emotions are the key to exploring and developing relationships, and is a critical skill for leaders to build.

Here are a few reflective questions for you to consider:

Can the emotion can be linked to an action that will benefit and not harm? The purpose of emotions is to trigger the human brain to action. This is the point that leaders can explore what actions can be taken. Was it enough to merely express the emotion, or is there an action that needs to be taken. How can the leader or someone help? This is not a directive for the leader to own the action — remember the emotion is owned by the person expressing the emotion — but a leader can help to guide or coach the person to explore actions that can positively impact and create change.