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When Your Feelings Conflict with Your Leadership Role (HBR)

Four techniques to try the next time you find your emotions in conflict.

(Originally published in HBR. Image: HBR Staff/Yan Krukau/Getty Images)

There are unwritten rules about the emotions you’re expected to show at work. These implicit “feeling rules” are so embedded in an organization’s social fabric that we rarely notice them. However, there are times when there’s a conflict between how you feel and the emo­tions you’re expected to display. So how do you decide when to express your true feelings and be “authentic” and when to put on a game face and show the emotions expected of you?

Given their visibility and the requirements of their role, leaders encounter this dilemma often. Take Jon, a senior legal leader who strongly disagreed with his general counsel’s ways of working but was still expected to rally his team. Or Dara, who was expected to willingly transition her organization (one she had built and didn’t want to let go) to another leader as part of a re-org. To manage these emotional demands, leaders often “surface act,” putting on a face that belies their actual feelings. And this emotional labor has become greater than ever.

Leaders risk losing credibility and effectiveness if they disclose everything they think and feel — a reality that is especially true for women and people of color. But suppressing your emotions is also costly. The stress of surface acting makes leaders more prone to bodily aches, insomnia, burnout, and depression. The effort expended can also reduce self-control, increasing the chance that leaders lash out at work. In turn, this impacts engagement levels, turnover, and the financial performance of an organization.

So, what’s the remedy? How can leaders walk this authenticity tightrope? Here are a few techniques to try the next time you find your emotions — and the emotions you’re expected to display — in conflict:

1. Reappraise the situation.

When your feelings and emotional expectations are discordant, “deep acting” offers a healthier, more effective alternative to surface acting. With this technique, you focus on finding legitimate reasons to feel the expected feelings, so you don’t need to fake them.

For example, Dara understood that she should be good-tempered and collaborative in transitioning her organization to another leader; nevertheless, she felt unvalued and upset. To manage this incongruity, Dara focused on the benefits of the situation — a chance for her to do something new. In reappraising the situation, Dara changed her emotional state so that she could more authentically show up with the expected emotions.

Empathy helps with reframing and deep acting, too. Imagine your team is racing to complete critical deliverables when a team member requests a week off to handle a family emergency. Your immediate feelings might be disbelief and panic — how will we ever get all this done now? But by seeing the situation through your team member’s eyes, you’re more likely to experience genuine concern and display compassion.

Deep acting requires cognitive effort and isn’t always possible as it takes time to step back and reappraise. However, deep actors report less fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals compared to surface actors.

2. Focus on what matters.

Another deep-acting technique is to focus on the larger purpose of your work. Focusing on the people who benefit from your work can be energizing and reduces the likelihood of burning out.

For instance, Jon saw that his expressions of disdain and chagrin negatively impacted his team. By thinking about his team’s needs, rather than prioritizing his value around transparency, Jon moved from feeling like a fraud to feeling good about showing up for his team in the ways they needed.

To refocus, step back and reflect on why your work matters. What impact does it have on your team members, customers, or the broader community? Creating a positive outcome for people we care about can make our experience of displaying certain emotions less taxing and negative.

3. Do an emotional audit.

Situations that cause us to experience internal dissonance are opportunities for personal learning and growth. Do an emotional audit and ask yourself: What am I feeling? Where do I feel it in my body? What is causing me to feel that way? What does my reaction say about my beliefs or values?

From an early age, many of us get the message that certain emotions are not okay. If we’re sad, we’re told to “man up” or “big girls don’t cry.” If we’re angry, we’re told to calm down. But emotions are natural and essential: They provide feedback on how we are experiencing the world, helping us make good decisions, build positive relationships, and cultivate well-being.

Consider whether your discomfort arises from your beliefs about the validity of certain emotions. If so, validating your feelings may help you break free from limiting scripts embedded by your familial and cultural upbringing.

This process builds your emotional intelligence, strengthening your capacity to perform emotional labor and leadership over time. Many leaders I coach are disconnected from their feelings and bodies, unaware of how their inner landscape influences their actions. However, self-awareness and skilled emotion management are essential for effective leadership in today’s complex and challenging world.

If a sense of dissonance in your role is consistent, consider how you might align your position more closely with your values. Continually reappraising negative emotions about your role or working conditions is not a good long-term solution. When your traits and motives more closely fit the emotional requirements of your job, the less emotional labor it requires.

4. Take time to reconnect and replenish.

To reduce the strain of emotional labor, seek out support. Connect with people to whom you can express your unedited thoughts and feelings — whether it’s your partner, a therapist or coach, or trusted peers. Engaging in activities that enable you to relax and recharge, such as meditation, journaling, art, or nature walks, can also reduce the hidden stress.

It’s also important to embrace self-compassion. Self-compassion increases your emotional intelligence, capacity to treat others more compassionately, and overall effectiveness as a leader. Leaders rarely receive training on how to identify and work with emotions, so treat yourself kindly as you come up the learning curve.

. . .

While the emotional work you do as a leader may go unrecognized and undervalued, it is more vital than ever in today’s work world. This labor is often a selfless and prosocial act, allowing you to care for and positively impact others even when you’re not feeling it. However, it should not come at your personal expense. Try the techniques listed above — to preserve your health and ensure your high performance over time.


With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina


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