Leaders communicate with emotion

I’ve been listening to a new podcast from author and consultant Patrick Lencioni called At the Table. The podcast is fun, easy to listen to, and has been both topical and conversational. The episodes are relatively short, and like Lencioni’s writing style, they are engaging. I recommend you check out the podcast (and let me know what you think of it too!).

One of the recent episodes focused on a quote from Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s claim that in 30 years, CEOs will be obsolete. According to CNN Money, Ma said, “In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time Magazine as the best CEO.” Lencioni and his colleague and co-host Cody Thompson rejected this idea and talked about the human side of leadership.

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In the episode, Patrick and Cody discuss how the old business adages recommending that leaders “keep people guessing” and “hold your cards close to your chest,” are bad advice. They discuss how they have consulted with CEOs whose flat affect or lack of emotion in communication creates extra work in the organization because employees are constantly trying to interpret and extrapolate on any small nugget of information they get. The content made me think a lot about how communicating both in general and communicating with emotion are necessary skills for transformational leaders.

Communicating with emotion is a powerful lesson for leaders for a few reasons. First, without it, it creates a vacuum. Second, without it, it creates politics. Third, without it, psychological safety erodes.

Let’s look at each of these a bit closer.

As an undergraduate student studying government and politics, I remember hearing the saying, “nature abhors a vacuum,” which is attributed to Aristotle. We also learned the related concept of a power vacuum, which means that when there is no identifiable leader, others will rush in to fill the void. When leaders fail to communicate, including failing to communicate with emotion, other people in the organization tend to fill-in missing information for the leader though the information may not be consistent with the leader’s intentions.

Second, when people in the organization or group are confused, it can create politics. This happens when one group interprets the leader one way and hears one message, while another group is reading between the lines hears something different. Then each group positions themselves to have their perspectives win out. All of these dynamics can be avoided by a leader that communicates effectively. Using emotion can also send the right messages, with the right tone, at the right time, to eliminate politics and interpretation.

Finally, the lack of communication by the leader can erode psychological safety. Without communication on relevant topics, followers almost always start to worry about the impact on them and their standing in the organization. Without clarification about the impacts of a decision, most people will almost always interpret them with negativity and worry. That is why shaping the message, which many leaders can do through their emotions, is vital.

Patrick and Cody are right. The Robot CEO isn’t coming anytime soon, at least not in service environments where people are the main asset of the business. Communication, especially communication with emotion, is a vital tool for all transformational leaders.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Communication with emotion can keep the people in the organization focused and on the right path. Without it, followers will spend their time filling the vacuum of information with assumptions, interpretations, and worry.