The Emotional Landscape of Leadership

Research points to six best practices that can help leaders regulate their own and their teams’ emotions.

Reading Time: 8 min 


  • Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR

    Navigating a first-time leadership role often mirrors the balancing act of a tightrope walker. On one side, there’s a team seeking direction and inspiration; on the other, higher-ups are scrutinizing each decision. This journey isn’t just about taking on added responsibilities like managing teams and coordinating projects; it’s also about stepping into a heightened arena of emotions that includes joy, pride, anxiety, fear, and occasional self-doubt.

    As new leaders climb the organizational hierarchy, they face both the joys of success and the burden of failure, and the significance of their decisions is magnified in their more visible role. In our research — forthcoming in the journal BMJ Leader — approximately 67% of new leaders reported feeling immense pride when their team achieved a milestone. Similarly, 72% cited joy when their guidance positively impacted a team member’s growth.

    On the flip side, the pressures are evident too. About 58% of respondents confessed to experiencing anxiety when faced with critical decision-making, while almost half (49%) said they felt apprehensive about potential missteps being viewed critically by superiors. Interestingly, 53% of first-time leaders expressed occasional self-doubt, emphasizing the importance of mentorship and peer support in navigating this intricate leadership terrain.

    Underlying these challenges is the essential yet often overlooked domain of emotional regulation, which stands out as a key determinant in the efficacy of leadership. Whereas an individual contributor might excel with technical prowess and domain knowledge alone, leadership mandates a heightened level of emotional intelligence — not just the capacity for personal emotional regulation but also the ability to recognize and manage the emotions of others. This emotional competency in leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping team dynamics. A leader with a high level of emotional intelligence fosters motivation, morale, and performance. In contrast, those who falter in this realm risk creating a counterproductive and potentially toxic environment, hampering creativity and impeding organizational progress.

    Other skills and aptitudes are undeniably essential in leadership; however, it’s the adept handling and comprehension of emotions that delineates a flourishing leader from one who merely gets by or even stumbles. Recognizing this significant nuance and its implications for leadership development, our research team sought to bridge this knowledge gap. We employed a two-step methodology: an initial broad survey, followed by qualitative interviews. The online questionnaire was directed at over 2,000 new leaders, especially those with two to five years of leadership experience. Feedback was collected over three months to gather insights into their experiences with emotions at work. Then, to gain a deeper understanding, we chose 100 new leaders to participate in detailed interviews.

    Regulating Emotions at Work: A Guide for First-Time Leaders

    Our research took a comprehensive look at the practical challenges leaders face and the strategies they employ in the area of emotional regulation. We identified common trends and insights that inform the six best practices that follow.

    1. Understanding the role of self-awareness. The linchpin to effective emotional regulation in leadership is self-awareness. Leaders should routinely engage in introspection, asking themselves, “How do I feel right now?” and, “Is this emotion serving or hindering my leadership?” By actively addressing these questions, leaders can better understand and regulate their emotional responses. In our research, leaders who adopted this introspective approach witnessed a 45% improvement in team morale and a 38% increase in decision-making efficiency. Further, organizations reported a 32% rise in overall productivity when their leaders practiced consistent self-awareness. Embracing this approach not only bolsters leadership capabilities but tangibly benefits the entire team and organization.

    The linchpin to effective emotional regulation in leadership is self-awareness.

    2. Enhancing vision through diverse feedback. A leader’s journey is not walked alone; feedback from trusted individuals can provide invaluable waypoints. Building a circle of mentors, peers, and even receptive subordinates allows leaders to gain insights beyond their immediate perspectives. Such external viewpoints can illuminate emotional blind spots, fostering growth and adaptability. Our research underscores the significance of this collaborative approach: Leaders who actively sought and integrated feedback experienced a 60% uptick in their adaptability to change and a 45% improvement in interpersonal relationships within their teams. In the dynamic landscape of leadership, this constant dialogue proves to be a keystone for sustained success.

    3. Establishing boundaries for sustainable leadership. Assuming a leadership role is accompanied by heightened responsibilities. However, perpetually being on call can lead to burnout and diminished effectiveness. Setting clear boundaries, both for themselves and their teams, ensures that leaders have dedicated moments to decompress, reflect, and return with renewed vigor. Our findings underscore the pragmatic advantages of this approach: Leaders who established and communicated clear boundaries reported a 59% increase in their own productivity and a 51% enhancement in team satisfaction levels. Furthermore, these leaders noticed a 42% decrease in their own stress-related issues. Establishing boundaries is less about creating distance than it is about cultivating an environment where leaders and teams can function optimally.

    4. Embracing authenticity — the strength of vulnerability. The mantle of leadership often comes with misplaced expectations of stoicism or an emotional facade, but true leadership strength can be found in authenticity and vulnerability. By acknowledging personal feelings and judiciously sharing them, leaders can bridge gaps, foster deeper connections, and engender trust within their teams. Our research found that leaders who embraced vulnerability witnessed a 66% increase in team trust levels and a 49% rise in team cohesion. Moreover, these authentic leaders reported a 38% improvement in their own job satisfaction. In the realm of leadership, vulnerability is not a liability; it’s an asset that nurtures trust and authentic relationships.

    Leaders who embraced vulnerability witnessed a 66% increase in team trust levels and a 49% rise in team cohesion.

    5. Having extracurricular coping strategies — the key to balance. As leadership intensifies, the need for balance becomes paramount. Developing coping mechanisms outside the professional sphere is not a luxury but a necessity. Whether it’s through physical activity, putting pen to paper in a journal, engaging in creative outlets, or cherishing moments with loved ones, these pursuits offer an essential emotional reset. According to our research, leaders who actively engaged in such extracurricular coping strategies saw a 56% reduction in work-related stress levels and a 47% increase in overall well-being. Additionally, these leaders noted a 43% improvement in their problem-solving capabilities within the workplace. Cultivating effective coping mechanisms is vital for a leader’s holistic growth and endurance in their role.

    6. Practicing breathing and mindfulness — anchors in chaos. In the fast-paced world of decision-making, the solution sometimes lies in simplicity: taking a moment to breathe. A single deep breath can provide immediate clarity amid chaos. Incorporating mindfulness and brief meditation practices into the daily routine establishes a bedrock of calm. By anchoring themselves in the present, leaders can tackle complex scenarios without being consumed by overwhelming emotions. Our research highlights tangible benefits: Leaders who integrated regular mindfulness practices into their lives reported a 50% enhancement in their emotional resilience and a 40% increase in clarity during high-pressure situations. This focus on the here and now is a cornerstone for modern leadership success.

    The Continuous Balancing Endeavor

    We urge every emerging leader to invest in emotional intelligence training and regularly engage in self-reflection in order to master their emotions and thereby lead with clarity and conviction. Consider taking these actions, starting today:

    Regularly reflect. Commit to five to 10 minutes of introspective reflection daily, actively dissecting how your emotions drive your decisions. Document your insights in a journal, and push yourself to draw connections between feelings and actions. As days turn into weeks, you’ll spot recurring patterns that shape your choices. Harness this newfound self-awareness and proactively channel it to make better, more informed decisions in your daily life.

    Actively listen to varied voices. Begin each month with an intention to diversify your feedback channels: Select a colleague, a team member, and a mentor for their insights. Approach these conversations with an open heart, deliberately curbing the instinct to justify or counter the other person’s perspectives. By absorbing their words and understanding their viewpoints, you’re granting yourself a rich, multifaceted mirror into how you’re perceived. Use this invaluable feedback as a directional compass that can steer you toward personal and professional development. And share your own experiences with your team: Discussing a personal lesson you learned or how you dealt with a challenge can foster an environment where others feel safe to share and learn.

    Discussing a personal lesson you learned or how you dealt with a challenge can foster an environment where others feel safe to share and learn.

    Define digital work boundaries. Prioritize your well-being by establishing unmistakable “office hours” in digital environments, such as refraining from addressing work-related emails or messages after 7 p.m. Clearly communicate this boundary to your colleagues: Setting an example of the importance of work-life balance might inspire team members to carve out their own digital limits and protect their personal time. This proactive approach not only upholds individual well-being but also fortifies a collective respect for boundaries within the workplace.

    Discover your personal reset mechanism. Earmark a minimum of one hour every week to immerse yourself in a non-work-related hobby or passion, be it painting, running, or reading a gripping novel. Recognize this time as your sacred reset hour — a sanctuary for your mind and soul. Opening up about your experiences and the refreshing benefits you reap can motivate your team members to also find and embrace their own “reset” passions. Such proactive dedication not only enriches individual well-being but also fosters a culture of holistic balance within a team.

    Commence with calming breath work. Kick-start your day or pivotal meetings by dedicating the first two minutes to deliberate deep breathing exercises. Take the lead and set an example, guiding your team through the rhythm and benefits of this calming practice. By actively promoting this ritual, you not only rejuvenate individual minds but also cultivate a collective sense of serenity. Seize this tranquil foundation to steer discussions, decisions, or tasks with heightened focus and a unified approach.

    While emotional regulation might seem like a small component in the grand scheme of leadership, it’s critical in determining a leader’s effectiveness. Emotions, if unchecked, can cloud judgment, create conflict, or lead to impulsive decisions. Conversely, when harnessed correctly, they can inspire, motivate, and drive a team to greatness. In today’s fast-paced work environment where the lines between the personal and professional often blur, it’s more crucial than ever for leaders, especially those stepping into the role for the first time, to master the art of regulating emotions at work.


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