Leadership with a Smile Managing Our Emotions as a Tool of Enacting Leadership

Young business people having meeting at modern office

By Marian Iszatt-White

Practicing leaders often have to manage their emotions as part of enacting their leadership role: whilst we all do this as part of our everyday lives, for leaders it can be an important “tool of the trade”. So how do they perform the “emotional labour” this entails and still feel authentic as leaders?


More than Just “Service with a Smile”

We are all familiar with the kind of fake “service with a smile” which is a common feature of many of our commercial interactions today. The McDonald’s server, the airline cabin crew and the hospital nurse are all required to show particular emotions and suppress others as a routine part of their work. But the need to abide by professional “display rules” – and to use their emotions as a tool of getting the job done – is also an inseparable part of the work of professional managers and organisational leaders. Motivating staff, disciplining under-performers, appearing confident in times of uncertainty and change, and controlling personal feelings which would otherwise intrude upon our professional persona are all part of the everyday lives of those of us who occupy such roles. And whereas the “emotional labour”1 of service workers is often formulaic and relatively superficial – a series of brief encounters – for leaders it is likely to be far more complex and to require a greater degree of judgement and engagement. The more ongoing relations, the wider variety of desired outcomes, and the more complex nature of leadership work per se, all contribute to making professional emotional labour a much more challenging beast than its service sector counterpart.2


“To Thine Own Self be True…”3

At the same time, we are hearing constantly of the need for leaders and managers to be “authentic” as the antidote to the numerous examples of individual unethical behaviour and corporate scandal which are constantly being presented to us by the media. Authentic leaders are said to be “transparent about their intentions and [to] strive to maintain a seamless link between espoused values, behaviours and actions”.4 This raises the question of how individual leaders and managers “square the circle” between the need to perform emotional labour as a routine part of their jobs, and the requirement to both feel and appear authentic.

So how do practicing leaders experience the potential tensions arising from these very different demands of their leadership roles? And what strategies can we all employ for keeping an authentic sense of self when called upon to perform emotional labour in the enactment of our own leadership and management roles? Much of my research in the last 10 years has involved asking a range of leaders – middle and senior managers, public and private sector, male and female – exactly these questions. Their answers have been most enlightening – and often surprising.

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Squaring the Circle Between Emotional Labour and Authentic Leadership

There was an easy acceptance by the leaders I studied of the “display rules” that their roles required. Ted, an administrative director in Higher Education said: “It’s a bit like being an actor, you try and present an appearance you don’t necessarily have to feel it. If you are in a situation where you think it’s going to be of value to raise your voice… then do that but you don’t have to feel it.” Another senior manager in the public sector, Julie, said that for her it was “A balance between role playing and the real me… so generally speaking if I am concerned or angry about something… I control how that is demonstrated by me, I don’t necessarily control the fact that I am angry or concerned.”

All of the managers I interviewed had been required to make redundancies or handle disciplinary issues, with both situations being viewed as a challenging but accepted part of their role. Even when faced with a male colleague breaking down in tears, Roger – a senior manager in the petrochemicals sector – stated “It is my job, I have assessed it, it is a right and fair decision and this has to be the outcome” Whilst managers often can’t alter redundancy decisions, the way such decisions are communicated and the degree of support given to staff are within the manager’s direct control. It is here they can allow their values to be authentically expressed. Terry, a national sales manager, summarises it as follows: “I’ve had to make people redundant and I didn’t look forward to it but I managed to separate personal feelings of ‘I wish I didn’t have to do this’ from a professional responsibility, explaining the reasons why and keeping focussed on those commercial reasons and trying to show a degree of sensitivity rather than just being completely detached emotionally. My instincts would be to have got[ten] more emotionally involved but if I had done so it probably wouldn’t have helped the individual.”

Disciplinary conversations are also an accepted part of the managers’ role. Roger stated “(I feel) uncomfortable because I don’t like confrontation but at the same time I don’t shy away from it because I recognise it is part of the job.” Nina, an IT manager, talking about the need to confront an underperforming member of staff, makes it clear, “if I didn’t do anything as her manager then I was not being effective in my position”. However this is an area where increased management experience eases the challenge. Nina states, “I think initially I absolutely hated them. At first I felt I just wanted to run away from it because I did not want that conflict.” But she goes onto say: “I don’t think there is any point in shying away from them because if you do, things just get worse and worse” so you just have to be “confident with the knowledge and evidence you are taking into that situation”.

It is not only in the management of colleagues where emotional labour is expended: many leaders cited stressors from outside of the organisation too. For example Rebecca, a director of a management consultancy, talked about the need to consciously control emotions in front of clients and maintain the professional mask: “whatever you think, if the client is talking utter rubbish, you just stay pan faced, so I am quite consciously in control of my emotions at work”. Similarly, Steven, from a multinational IT consultancy, described his frustration and the emotional labour expended when clients change their minds about what they want. He says, “It’s frustrating but you are not able to express that frustration… If you stand up and say ‘I am not going to do it because you are changing your mind way too often’ it is not going to look good for our company. Emotions have no place in those dealings … I hold back comments I want to make.”


Losing Professional Control

A number of leaders told stories of when their managerial mask had slipped and they displayed unprofessional, yet genuine emotion. Nina talked about a meeting with her Chief Executive when she presented her business plan to him: “He absolutely slated it, saying it will never work, but I had got buy-in from everybody and people had fed into it and I just cried. I was trying to look out of the window and blink and I just couldn’t stop the tears… I was devastated that I had cried instead of talking to him professionally.”

Whilst examples of managers losing emotional control serve to emphasise that – like the rest of us – they are only human and it is interesting to note that in most cases this “unprofessional” display of authentic emotion had a positive effect on future working relationships. Nina reported that, “Since then our relationship has been miles better in that it has been a lot more open. I don’t think he realised what pressure we were under to deliver and he has put himself there saying ‘I should have done this, should have been more supportive in that way’… In hindsight, even though I was distraught at the time, it had a real positive effect on our relationship.”


Strategies for Coping with Emotional Labour

Be aware of how important your emotions are and how much they can affect other people. The most dangerous thing is being unaware.

The practicing managers I spoke to had plenty of advice to offer about how to successfully manage the emotional labour required to be an effective leader. Rebecca advised “don’t shy away from things”, on the basis that avoiding situations causes more emotional labour than facing difficulties. It was also seen as beneficial to be able to take the observers role and analyse the reasons behind a situation. Curtis, who runs his own business, told me: “Every time emotions come into play in the workspace, take a bit of time to reflect on how your emotions have affected yourself and other people and whether you are happy with that effect. So not necessarily trying to control yourself or immediately change, because that’s a really hard thing to do, but almost to be aware of how important your emotions are and how much they can affect other people. The most dangerous thing is being unaware.”

“Planning and preparation is everything” was an advice given by most leaders in facing difficult meetings and conversations. Gordon, an experienced manager in a large city council, put it as follows: “You have to do a lot of preparation – you have to make sure that you know what the points are that you want to say – you have to make sure that you have an idea of what sort of resolution you want out of it… and then when you actually go into the meeting you have to be a very, very good listener because a lot of conflict management is about giving the other person a chance to express what they have to say and their feelings.”

All managers talked about the value and benefit of having a “circle of trust” where issues could be discussed and support given.

It was predictable that all the managers I spoke to talked about the need to have people with whom they could discuss difficult situations. Some discussed issues with their partners whilst some purposely did not, maintaining the separation between work and home life. However, all talked about the value and benefit of having a “circle of trust” where issues could be discussed and support given. Peter, an experienced manager in a large multi-national, advised “Find a friend or a colleague who you know has a similar value system or who you can let off steam to. Or who you think will at least give you an objective response to ‘why am I feeling like this’ or ‘need to remember this, that or other’.”

Many managers used exercise as their chosen way of letting off steam in the fasce of high requirements to perform emotional labour. More often than not the exercise was outdoors and involved nature. Dennis, a director in the public sector, made the connection between exercise and successfully handling the strains of emotional labour explicit: “If I know I am going to be going to a challenging meeting I tend to go to the gym first or go for a swim and I would get rid of my testosterone and I find myself so much calmer.” This is a strategy we could all usefully try!    


About the Author

Dr. Marian Iszatt-White is Director of Doctoral Programmes at Lancaster University Management School and a lecturer in Leadership and Management. Her research centres around the accomplishment of leadership as a day-to-day practice and she is the Editor of Leadership as emotional labour: Management and the ‘managed heart’ (Routledge, 2012 – recently reissued in paperback). She has also co-authored a leadership textbook (Leadership – published by OUP in 2014, second edition due out March 2017) aimed at countering the Western bias in much of the leadership literature.

1. Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
2. Iszatt-White, M. (editor) (2012) Leadership as Emotional Labour: Management and the ‘Managed Heart’. Routledge. (Reissued in paperback September 2016).
3. Laertes, Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
4. Luthans, F and Avolio, BJ (2003) Authentic leadership: A positive development approach. In K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton and R.E. Quinn (eds) Positive Organisational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. (pp 241-261).



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