Why emotional literacy is the key to great leadership
Emma Webb argues that creating a safe environment for leaders to explore emotion and feelings improves working relationships.
There is much written on the need for emotional intelligence in leaders. In recent years the term has become widely used and is increasingly recognised as being vital to leadership. However, there is some debate over the extent to which someone’s emotional intelligence can be measured scientifically – something that emotional intelligence models attempt to do. Perhaps the first question that needs to be asked is can the awareness of one’s emotions be classed as an ‘intelligence?'
And does measuring someone’s emotional intelligence pigeon-hole them? Is it better to simply explore emotions without the potential judgement that comes from measurement? Is it more effective to raise a leader’s awareness of what emotions exist so that they are more likely to notice them when they experience them and do something about the impact their emotions might have on others?
Emotional literacy is regarded as a social construction. It is different to emotional intelligence, which is more individualistic and attempts to measure awareness as if emotions were measurable in a rational way. Emotional literacy is about increasing awareness of emotions in general and using this knowledge to improve relationships through empathy with others and through managing one’s emotions. In his 1999 book Achieving Emotional Literacy, Claude Steiner describes emotional literacy as:
The ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively. To be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life around you.
For leaders to improve their personal power, or impact, they must first improve their understanding of what emotions exist. By doing so, leaders become more aware of the different emotions that they experience and better able to describe them to others. This helps to improve communication between people, resulting in more effective relationships. Steve Hein2 describes emotional literacy as “the ability to express feelings with specific feeling words, in three-word sentences.” For example, “I feel rejected.”
It sounds simple, but in reality being aware of and being able to describe emotions – especially in three words, without feeling the need to justify them – is one of the hardest things for leaders to do. Whether it’s a fear of appearing vulnerable or ‘weak’, or a fear of upsetting people, or that they just don’t recognise what is happening internally, leaders rarely talk about their emotions. So how do you resolve this?
The first step is to help leaders to understand the neuroscience of emotion. Behaviours are impacted by thinking and feelings, which are impacted by emotions. When somebody is having an emotional reaction to something, people don’t see the emotion, they see the resulting behaviour. So if leaders want to change their behaviours in order to positively impact on those around them, they need to be aware of, and in control of, their emotions. To do this, leaders need to be aware of the physiology of emotion – what is happening in the body to create an emotion. There is a lot of research to suggest that physiological reactions create emotions themselves:
Emotions are often felt in the body, and somatosensory feedback has been proposed to trigger conscious emotional experiences. Recognising what is happening in the body, and being aware of what emotion that links to, is the key to controlling emotions. For example when leaders feel their palms getting sweaty from fear they can take steps to examine and control the reaction.
Creating a safe psychological environment for this learning is essential. Exploring emotions and behaviours is not something that many people find easy. Fear of being judged, or of finding something they don’t like, can send people into ‘threat brain’ which means that the learning suffers. A safe psychological space will be free from judgement and criticism, helping leaders to be open, curious and vulnerable. And ideally it will be away from the normal workplace – somewhere where leaders can disconnect and be fully immersed in the learning.
Once leaders are aware of what’s going on physiologically they then need to explore the different emotions that exist. There are 3,000 to 4,000 words in the English language that describe feelings and emotions. But ask most people to tell you the emotions they have experienced recently and they will be unlikely to name more than 12. Increasing a leader’s emotional vocabulary means that they become more able to decipher the nuances in their feelings and become better at explaining how they are feeling to others.
The benefits of this can be huge. Research shows that putting negative feelings in words (also called affect labelling) can dramatically decrease the physiological effect that the feeling has:
Affect labelling…diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.
This means that the more leaders are able to describe their feelings, the less those feelings will impact on them internally, and therefore the less their behaviour is affected. This can result in fewer conflicts in the workplace and better working relationships. Equally, if a leader has a better understanding of emotions in general they are more able to empathise with others, meaning conversations are approached with more compassion and less confrontation. And if people feel able to express how they are feeling knowing that they will be heard and understood, and not come into conflict, they will feel more secure and supported.
In conclusion, emotional literacy is less about the scientific measurement of emotional intelligence and more about exploring emotions. This means that leaders can improve their emotional awareness without fear of the judgement that can come from measurement and without being pigeon-holed. Through emotional literacy leaders are better able to recognise the nuances in their emotions and are better at describing their emotions to others. This leads to better communication, with fewer conflicts and a much more open, honest and supportive workplace – the foundation of a fear-free and productive organisation. So if we need leaders to lead behavioural and cultural change, helping them to develop their own emotional literacy is the place to start.
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