Great Leaders Never Show Emotion, Until They Need To

thoughtful-manWe can all picture it in our minds—the dusty floors of an old Western saloon. Cowboys surround a poker table. Beads of sweat roll down their foreheads as the stakes continue to grow. The tension, in fact, grows to the point where everyone in the bar understands that the next show of cards could erupt into an all-out brawl—bottles flying, and tables breaking.

While today’s organizations are far more sterile than a saloon we might find in the movies, the tension we feel in today’s workplace can often feel similar—a top performer quits, a client doesn’t renew a contract, or team members are squabbling. Instead of showing a hand of cards, employees are sharing ideas and/or results. Instead of flying bottles and fists, words can be flung to make or break a co-worker’s spirit. And, yes, just like sitting across the table from a gnarly looking cowboy, in today’s business world we all need to have a great poker face—even when the stakes aren’t high. And learn to overtly express emotion when necessary. Here’s why.

  1. Emotions Can Inflate or Deflate Conflict: Disagreements happen. And, when they do, great leaders know how to appear dispassionate even when they want to scream. In fact, the best leaders understand that disagreeing perspectives and conflicting opinions shouldn’t necessarily be squashed—they should be amplified (dispassionately) in certain circumstances. Research shows that when employees seek opposing opinions about their work, they are more likely to receive praise for that work. Instead of focusing on the fact that people disagree, listen closely to the contents of both arguments because, together, new ideas, solutions, and results may arise.
  2. Emotions Can Bolster or Squash Innovation: As leaders, we often see our role as steering the ship. However, when it comes to innovation, it’s important to let others share their ideas before we share our own—to avoid emotions of jealousy, lack of appreciation, or being overlooked. For example, if you walk into a meeting and pitch your plan to complete a project, and then say, “What does everyone think?” many people may assume that you’re not open to new perspective. They might actually feel as if they’re arguing with you if they had a different approach. Learn to invite all ideas before choosing a path—because many of those ideas might be complementary to each other.
  3. Emotions Can Build or Destroy Relationships: Recent research shows that when people receive feedback that is more negative than their own view of themselves, they often choose to end that working relationship. Most likely due to their own feelings being hurt. But, the flip side of this scenario is also true. Positive emotions—feeling appreciated for our work—strengthen relationships. In fact, when employees are recognized and rewarded for their work, research says they: 1) Are more likely to seek new ways to improve efficiency, 2) Increase their efforts to ensure customers are happy, and 3) Are more willing to put in a great deal of effort. Learn to limit emotion when feedback is negative (don’t take it personally or make it personal), an overtly express emotion when feedback is positive.
  4. Emotions Can Boost or Marginalize Results: In the corporate world, we often like to assume that productivity is solely based on action. However, the more automated we become with technology, the more research is revealing just how human we are. And, when it comes to productivity and results, emotions matter. In fact, a global study recently revealed that well-recognized employees have more drive and determination, that express more confidence, and they provide superior customer service. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to champion our people so they create the best results possible—it’s our responsibility to turn off the poker face and cheer.

While appearing dispassionate in heated moments is a fantastic skill, and holding opinions while others share ideas (even bad ones) could be considered an art form, there are times and places where the best leaders in the world have learned to both hold or overtly express their emotions. We are human. And, we need to understand that we share one thing in common with all our co-workers—whether we show emotion or not, they still exist, and they impact our ability at work.

David Sturt contributed to the writing of this article.

Originally published by Forbes

Todd Nordstrom

Todd Nordstrom

As host of the popular “Great Work Insights” podcast, weekly contributor to,, Director for the O.C. Tanner Institute and co-author of Appreciate, Todd Nordstrom’s career is full of insight based on thousands of in-depth interviews from around the globe. He has spoken to a wide range of audiences, from introducing rock bands in arenas, to countless on-air interviews with C-suite leaders from a plethora of industries, to all types of executives attending conferences around the world.

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