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The Best Managers Understand Their Employees’ Emotions—And Their Own

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Apr 18 2019

Like playing the flute or choosing the right sized Tupperware for your leftovers, being a good manager is a skill. You’re not born knowing how to play scales or eyeball specific volumes of pasta—it’s something learned and practiced. And when it comes to building your managerial muscles and shepherding others through a career journey, there are a lot of emotional skills that can really boost your toolkit.

We've studied the effects of emotions in the workplace, and the research shows that managers can make or break an office. In one poll, 50% of people said they’ve quit a job to remove themselves from a bad manager. (In another survey, 65% of folks said they’d take a new boss over a pay raise. Ouch.)

Managers often set the tone of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean managing has to be stoic, emotionless work. In fact, we think it should be the opposite.

There’s no set formula for becoming a perfect boss, but we have a few tips for building a positive emotional culture in the office and supporting the needs of the people that work for you.

Manage individually

After surveying almost 80,000 people, researcher Marcus Buckingham came up with the insight that “average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess.” In checkers, every piece is the same: they’re interchangeable. But winning a game of chess requires you to understand each piece’s strengths and weaknesses, and you can’t effectively play unless you understand why each piece is unique.

One of Mollie’s favorite examples of this individualized approach is IDEO’s new employee survey, which includes hardball questions like, “What’s your favorite office snack?” and “What kind of flowers do you like?” The answers give teams an understanding of their new colleagues right off the bat, and help managers address a newbie’s individual interests—even if it’s just a preference for vanilla vs. chocolate.

Address your feelings without becoming “emotionally leaky”

In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott recalls a morning when a report told her, “I know what kind of day I’m going to have by the kind of mood you’re in when you walk in the door.” Managing your feelings is as important as managing your team; what you consider a throwaway comment or a momentary bad mood can ruin someone’s day. Reactive, hot-tempered managers are hurtful and demoralizing.

But don’t pretend that you’re not allowed to have feelings (you’re human. Accept it!). “The idea that you’re never going to have a bad day as a boss is bullshit,” Kim says. “The best thing to do is to cop to it. Say to your team, ‘I’m having a bad day, and I’m trying my best not to take it out on you. But if it seems like I’m having a bad day, it’s because I am.’”

You don’t necessarily have to go into great detail (oversharing is another complicated topic), but acknowledging that there’s something going on can help those around you avoid unnecessary anxiety.

Figure yourself out first

Like we said: You’re human. That means you have your own emotional responses to unpack before you’re fully equipped to help others do the same. The best leaders are able to hit the pause button when they become emotional, sit with their feelings, and understand where they’re coming from. Instead of taking action immediately, they ask themselves, “What’s behind this emotion?”

A great manager will realize, for example, that anxiety about meeting a deadline can be mitigated by building structure to help a team get work done on time, or that a tough design review means that next time, more prototypes might be necessary. Tapping into your emotional toolkit will help you arm others for the emotional demands of the office.

Listen

It sounds basic, but it bears repeating. One of the questions Wharton Professor Adam Grant fields most often is, how do you have your suggestions heard when you’re not in charge? "These are not questions asked by leaders," Grant notes. Hearing people out is an extremely important part of letting them know you appreciate their work.

Listening is also the only way leaders can understand the source of problems or strong emotions. As a manager, ask questions instead of immediately trying to problem solve. You’ll never understand another person’s perspective unless you listen and show compassion.

Find time to prioritize yourself

Managing means cooking something on every burner without burning anything. You also have to time every step perfectly to make sure the meal comes together. If the simple thought of that balancing act exhausts you, try taking a "Shultz hour." When he was in office, former Secretary of State George Shultz protected one hour each week for solitary reflection with paper and pen. No one was allowed to interrupt him (except the president or his wife, which we understand).

If solo time feels a little too isolating, seek support. Try connecting with peers and folks who have a similar role with whom you feel safe talking openly about personal and professional issues. As Liz Koenig, who managed Teach for America teachers, told us, “You can’t pour out of an empty cup.”

Acknowledging emotions in the workplace is one thing; harnessing their power to become a better manager is another. It’s not impossible, but it does take work. We’d recommend not putting on a brave face, but instead getting a little vulnerable with the people that work for you. Here’s one last reminder: You’re human.

  • Mollie West Duffy

    Senior Organizational Designer, IDEO New York
    Mollie loves creating order out of chaos and helping people work better together. In her free time, Mollie enjoys taking personality tests, listening to podcasts, and seeing comedy shows.
  • Liz Fosslien

    Illustrator
    Liz is a writer and illustrator who works at Humu, where she focuses on how to drive behavior change that makes work better. She starts each day by reading academic abstracts and eating a bowl of greek yogurt.
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