The #1 Skill Every Leader Should Build

leadership Jul 08, 2020

There are a lot of new experiences that come with stepping into leadership. Hiring. Firing. Performance reviews. Goal-setting. Conflict management. If you’ve never led a team before, these things alone can have a steep learning curve. And yet, there’s another dynamic that leaders get to handle that you may not have thought about:


As people in positions of leadership, we often deliver tough messages that can trigger tears, raised voices, or the silent treatment. And if we don’t have the capacity – the energy, time, or skills – to handle someone’s emotions, we run the risk of making them feel unimportant or even possibly doing serious damage to the relationship. By building our emotional literacy skills, however, we can feel more confident stepping into high-emotion settings because we understand how leading through those situations effectively can create more productive, trust-filled working relationships. 

Getting Comfortable with Feelings

How many of you grew up in a household where you were regularly encouraged to “cheer up” or “suck it up” or “toughen up?” Us too. For a whole host of reasons, many parents or other adults in charge are uncomfortable with certain emotions (e.g., anger, sadness) and so they encourage us to ignore or push through the feelings. As a result, many of us struggle with emotional literacy.

Emotional literacy (sometimes also referred to as emotional intelligence) is one’s ability to express their emotional state and communicate their feelings, as well as being able to recognize and respond to the emotional states of others. These skills are first developed (like most social skills) in early childhood. So if our parents weren’t comfortable sitting with and processing through feelings, there’s a good chance we still struggle with that today.

If our emotional literacy skills could use a boost, one of the first things we can do is start with the person in the mirror. Through coaching, therapy, or conversations with a trusted friend or family member, we can practice talking about feelings – discussing what’s going on for us and what’s going on inside us. As we build these skills on an individual level, we’re better able to expand this emotional intelligence into other areas. With stronger emotional literacy, we can navigate relationships, community, work culture, and change with a heightened sense of awareness and more powerful communication.

Emotional Safety is Key to Trust-Filled Relationships

How likely are you to share something important with a colleague, leader or friend if you don’t fully trust them with your feelings? Probably not very likely! Trust, after all, is the bedrock of any good relationship – personal or professional – and to build trust, there must be emotional literacy and emotional safety present in any given interaction.

As leaders, one of our biggest responsibilities is to our team members – ensuring they feel supported, encouraged, and guided on the path to their goals. If they don’t feel like they can trust us – both when things are good and when things aren’t so good – that relationship is going to perpetually struggle.

However, by building our own emotional literacy and bringing that newly strengthened skillset to the workplace, we can create work cultures where sharing fears and failures is just as powerful and accepted as sharing celebrations and victories. When leaders are comfortable enough with emotions that they create an environment where employees can bring their complete and authentic selves to the workplace, where they know the boss is here to help find solutions (even if we raise our voice or shed a few tears along the way), and where they believe believe their well-being is the most important thing – that’s when trust is created and we can all show up more powerfully, with a heightened commitment to progress.

Busy-ness is Not an Excuse

MJST Success Coach, Christina Schroeder, recently shared a story illustrating the difference emotional literacy can make in the workplace. Here’s what she had to say:

One day, several years ago, I was walking down the hallway when I passed a team member. In casual fashion, I said, “Hey! How are you doing today?” In reply, she said, “Not well.” Her tone was heavy and emotion-filled.

I was en route to a meeting with some other colleagues and short on time. Inside my head, a voice was screaming, “You don’t have time for this! Don’t get sucked in!” So instead of following up with this team member, I simply replied, “Oh, man. I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope things get better.” And I hurried off.

That interaction happened more than nine years ago, and it is STILL permanently burned into my brain as if it happened in the last five minutes.

Because, what I realize in hindsight, is that person was either hurting enough or trusted me enough to let me see a glimmer of what was happening for them – and I brushed it off. I diminished the importance of their feelings and I missed out on an opportunity to make it okay to feel. All because I was “too busy.”

Christina’s experience speaks to what so many of us, as leaders, feel on a daily basis. That emotions just slow things down and muck stuff up. That wading into the “feelings waters” is a distraction from all of the other important work we have going on in a given day.

And, yet, it is the thing that makes all the difference.

It’s often said that people don’t leave companies – they leave managers. So here’s something we get to remember:

If, as a leader, you’re too busy to create a team environment built on strong emotional literacy skills, trust, understanding, curiosity and emotional safety, you should be unsurprised to find your schedule filled anyways...with hiring interviews thanks to employee turnover.

Being busy is not an excuse. “I don’t do feelings” is not an explanation. The strongest leaders know that it is the PEOPLE who come first...and the work results will follow.

The Take-Home Message

While managers in previous eras might have gotten away with “not doing feelings,” employees today want to work for leaders who care about them and who are invested in helping them become the most successful, fulfilled version of themselves. By building our emotional literacy – within ourselves and with others – we can create relationships that are meaningful, trust-filled, sustainable and yield results both in and outside your organization.

To learn more about emotional literacy, how to build emotion skills, and the impact of emotional literacy in both the education and corporate spaces, we invite you to check out the book Permission to Feel by Dr. Marc Brackett and his interview with Brene Brown on her podcast Unlocking Us. Dr. Brackett’s five-step approach to emotion management is both applicable and effective – something every leader can benefit from!


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