Helping high-potential leaders is one of the key areas that companies focus training on, and yet, when their leaders actually get that role, they often feel like they are unprepared for it.
What is the missing link? And how can leaders be more prepared? The answer is emotional connection.
When teams don’t perform well, it is not because team members lack communication skills or have a personality clash; it is because they feel emotionally disconnected. That gives a leader a new goal: It’s not just to make people a bit nicer or have less conflict or problem solve. The goal is to help the team create secure emotional bonds with each other.
Based on hundreds of studies and my experience in working with boards and teams, I find that leaders who learn the process of emotional connection can help teams work better, lead the way out of emotional disconnections, and bring back the safety in sharing concerns and challenges together.
The process of emotional connection starts with three tasks.
1. Creating Emotional Responsiveness
Emotional responsiveness fosters safety and guides people into this type of responsiveness with each other. Emotional responsiveness is the essence of secure connection. The focus is on recognizing softer emotions and being able to help people process their emotions in order to help them identify their need to feel emotionally safe. With emotional responsiveness, people feel safe to speak openly about their needs, fears and challenges.
When the Allergan board was defending the company against a hostile takeover, there was so much pressure, stress and fear that some of the board members had a tough time focusing on what was best for the company. Mike Gallagher, their lead director, understood the power of emotional connection and changed the way they conducted board meetings. He implemented a mandatory engagement policy where everyone had to voice their opinions and suggestions at every board meeting. He validated board members’ emotions and demonstrated empathy. Gallagher created so much psychological safety that board members would say, “We don’t want to go more than two weeks without a board meeting.”
2. Co-Regulating the Emotions of Others
With co-regulation, you don’t dismiss people’s feelings or diminish their fears and threats; you reframe their statements in terms of a negative cycle. You say, “No one has to be the bad guy. You got stuck in a dreadful cycle, and the cycle is taking over your relationship. I know how much you care about each other and how much you care about this project.” Reframing provides emotional safety because it aligns everyone against the cycle, not each other.
Recently, an audit committee leader had a conference call with his team during which people got agitated, they interrupted each other and the conversation got out of hand. He said, “Can we stop for a second? I just want to say that the reason why we are so passionate is because we really care about this process, and each of us cares about this company.” When the conversation resumed, people had a different tone of voice. They listened better, and they were able to derive a common language in the process. Reframing offers compassion and pulls people together.
3. Empathic Reflection
When people are disconnected and distressed, I reflect constantly. For one thing, it helps me stay grounded. Reflection helps me focus on tracking emotions so that I don’t get lost in content. Emotions impact our body before our mind makes sense of them. When we reflect, we slow things down, which allows us to process it in a way that makes sense for us.
Carl Rogers, a father of humanistic theory, said, “A good reflection and a timely reflection is not a repetition, it’s a revelation.”
Nature is brilliant. When we slow things down, it calms the brain down, and people feel heard and seen. To be heard and seen, and not judged, is powerful. It is calming and healing.
With these three tasks – emotional responsiveness, co-regulation and empathic reflection – you will start to change the effectiveness of your leadership style and have a new task: to create emotional connection with your team.