Authenticity In Leaders Is Not Enough For Their Followers
Some thoughts inspired by the discussion about ‘Are Leaders Getting Too Emotional?’ between Gautam Mukunda of Harvard Business School and Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD on the always excellent HBR IdeaCast.
There is a whole sub-industry of leadership advice telling us that you must be an authentic leader, and show what you really feel. This is important, but actually the people you lead are looking for more than that.
First, people have to deal with you on a practical level. Your decisions, and your moods, affect their day to day working lives. So one thing they are looking for in a leader, perhaps above everything else, is consistency. They want to be able to predict how you would respond, at least in broad terms – people don’t want nasty surprises. A leader who responds to something you’ve done with praise one day, and to a similar thing with rage the next day, would be very stressful to work for. So they want your emotional responses to be consistent from day to day, so they know who they are dealing with.
Secondly, people want you to show that you feel the same as them, that you see the world in a similar way to them and that the things that are important to them also matter to you. This can be very effective in politics – look at the way Donald Trump appeals to low-income, poorly educated white males in America, even though he’s an ivy-league educated billionaire who was born into money. They feel “he’s our kind of guy” because he expresses the same prejudices they have, and says the kind of things they feel they’re not allowed to say any more.
So if you do feel pretty much the same as the people you are leading about most things, that’s fine. Even if you don’t, you still need to have empathy and understanding for how they feel, and be able to put yourself in their shoes, and be able to demonstrate that you understand how they feel.
Finally, authenticity. People are constantly assessing how sincere other people are – not just leaders, everyone – evaluating what they do and say in the light of previous actions and things they’ve said. If there’s inconsistency, that will make them question whether you mean what you say and they will trust you less.
Even when your actions and expressed feelings are consistent over time, people can still detect if you don’t really mean it, from natural ability to read micro-expressions and evaluate voice tone – although I have to say that people seem to subject you to less critical scrutiny if they agree with what you are saying.
Assuming you are consistent in how you show emotion, that you are seen to be able to share the emotions that your people are feeling, and that the emotions you show are authentic, how much you express those emotions? Clearly there are cultural expectations and norms for emotional expression, so a leader in Japan would be expected to be less expressive than one in Southern Europe or West Africa. There are also differences in expectations of men and women – there’s a stereotype that women are more emotional, so women leaders are usually careful to avoid that label, sometimes to the point of being too emotionally restrained and seeming robotic.
Generally leaders are expected to be in control of their emotions, but to be in touch with their emotional life. A point well made by Gianpiero Petriglieri in the HBR discussion is that screaming or shouting or crying is not the only way that people express emotions at work. For example, one classic way to express anger or disapproval in the workplace is to not show up for an important meeting, or to show up late and not say anything.
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