Resonance: Emotional Leadership

Ever have to deliver bad news to your people? Most leaders must do so from time to time. It is not uncommon to feel tension and dread when we face this task. We fear the reaction. How we handle our emotions can have a major impact on how the recipients will respond to our news. For them to react constructively, we must do our part.

Here’s why. Emotions tend to be contagious. This does not mean that we are helpless in the face of someone else’s feelings. It does mean, however, that human beings are constructed to respond to the emotions of others.

Leaders’ emotions are more contagious than most. Other things being equal, people look to the leader’s feelings as the feelings that reflect the most valid interpretation of the situation. Therefore, the way the leader feels most often becomes the dominant feeling in the room.

Suppose a leader has to let 20% of his workforce go. Rumors have been flying for days. As employees gather for the big meeting, we can safely guess that their feelings include anxiety mixed with hope against hope. Their feelings at the end of the meeting will determine how employees approach their work for some time to come. How the leader manages his own feelings will play a major role in how employees will feel. Let’s consider two scenarios and their aftermath.

Scene One: The leader walks into the room so consumed with his own tension and dread that he makes no room in his head for employees’ feelings. His business is in trouble, and he’s not sure what to do about it. The bad news he’s about to deliver, and his dread over his employees’ response, has him near panic.

He announces: “We have lost the Jones account, which as you know, accounts for 20% of our billings. There is no new business on the horizon. I have to let 20% of you go.” His comments are brusque with no time for questions or discussion. He turns and leaves the room.

His brusque demeanor is a thin cover for the panic that he feels. His emotions of panic, irritability, and hopelessness become the dominant feelings in the room, and not just among those who have become unemployed. Those who survive the cut have similar feelings. They now share their boss’s panic and have little hope for the future. Such feelings do not create high performance.

Scene Two: The leader walks into the room recognizing his own tension, both about his business and about having to give bad news to his employees. He has taken some time to consider his feelings, their feelings, and how he wants everyone to feel when this meeting ends. He knows that employees’ emotions are most likely to play off his own. He wants to set a good example of controlled anxiety and hope.

“As you know, we have lost the Jones account, which has provided 20% of our billings for the past few years. This is a big loss for us. I won’t kid you. I’m worried. Unfortunately, we don’t have any way to replace that business in the near term. This leaves me with the gut wrenching need to let some of you go. It isn’t fair because you have worked hard and have talent. The problem is that unless we take this step, our whole company soon would be lost and then everyone will be out of a job.

However, I want you to know that we are going to do everything we can to help those of you who must leave to find good employment. We also have some ideas about how to rebuild our business over time. If you are so inclined we’d love to have you back when that day arrives. Now, what questions and comments do people have?”

The news is the same in both scenes. However, the impact of the delivery is different. In the second scene, while there is anxiety in the room, as well there should be, it is controlled anxiety. There is also hope. Followers looked to the leader for emotional guidance. Their feelings began to resonate with his feelings, a mixture of fear and hope. Those employees who survive the cut believe that their boss will do whatever he can to protect their jobs. They know that he will not allow himself to become so consumed with his own feelings that he will forget to think about their welfare. As a result, they will work harder than ever to help the company get back on track. They will not be so consumed with anxiety that they cannot perform. And, those employees who leave will not be likely to spread bad feelings about their former employer.

The emotions of your employees have a powerful impact on their performance. If you lead, your emotions have a powerful impact on the emotions of your employees. When you face a leadership action, you can leverage the power of emotion by taking yourself through these questions:

  • How am I feeling about the situation?

  • How are these feelings influencing my thoughts and theirs?

  • How are my employees likely to be feeling right now?

  • How do I want us to feel, i.e., what feelings will maximize our ability to perform?

  • How can I use my feelings to encourage constructive feelings among employees?

Your best bet is to manage your own emotions to bring yourself to a realistically positive set of feelings. Don’t panic when it is not called for, but don’t just look through rose colored glasses either. Your balanced approach sets a constructive emotional example, essential because it is likely that these are the emotions that your employees will take as their own.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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