Emotional literacy is a must for effective leadership

By Dr. Bill Howatt

Did you know that 95% of our decisions are driven by emotions? They affect us all day long at work and at home, and when we are under strain, they can impact our choices and behaviours. If left unchecked, unpleasant emotions can lead to poor mental health - a particularly big challenge these days.

Despite their importance to our everyday experience, emotions haven’t traditionally been discussed as part of leadership development. However, after 30 years of working in clinical and applied workplace settings, I have concluded that when leaders don’t factor emotions into the employee relationship it is impossible to create a psychologically safe workplace.

Understanding emotional literacy

Are you in tune with your emotions? How about your employees’ emotions? Pause and ask yourself what emotions you are feeling at this moment. Where do you feel them in your body?

If you do not know how to tap into your emotions this way, or think it strange to even consider these questions, you may need to work on your emotional literacy.

Emotional literacy is a term that was coined by Claude Steiner. He noted that “To be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and the quality of your life and - equally important, the quality of life of the people around you. Emotional literacy helps your emotions work for you instead of against you.”

The value of emotional literacy in the workplace

Many employees and leaders have not learned the skills of emotional literacy - the ability to recognize, understand, name, and express feelings. It requires active self-awareness, including being mindful of the words you choose and how you share your emotions through nonverbal and facial expressions.

Emotional literacy also provides the capacity to view others’ behaviours and reactions more empathetically. We all have times when our emotions get the better of us. Unpleasant emotions like anger, grief, and guilt are not bad in and of themselves; they are just emotions. However, our reaction to these emotions can vary depending on whether we feel threatened in any way. When we do, our behaviour sometimes intensifies. An employee acting out because of unpleasant emotions is not a bad person. It may just be that they are not equipped with the skills to manage the emotions they are feeling appropriately. And if they are not given the proper support and tools, employees who are emotionally upset or fatigued may be more prone to become less productive, engage in at-risk behaviours, care little about others’ feelings, and in worst-case scenarios, ponder suicide.

The benefits of developing these skills are numerous:

  • Better self-regulation under pressure
  • Enhanced ability to display empathy
  • Increased capacity to effectively share feelings
  • Ability to relate to others’ situations
  • Improved resiliency
  • Psychologically safe leadership

And, thankfully, there are resources and strategies that you can use right away to help you and your team become more emotionally literate.

  • Take a course - I have taken the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Managing Emotions in Times of Uncertainty & Stress. It is a free, online program.
  • Monitor emotions - Practice becoming self-aware so that you can start to put a name to the emotions you are feeling. A neat activity is to write down all the emotions you can name. Yale offers an app to assist with this. It’s called the Mood Meter. It is an excellent tool that helps you become aware of 100 emotions that exist. I find it interesting how often I choose pleasant versus unpleasant emotions. It reminds us that we have more choice than we may realize over how we navigate our feelings.
  • Observe emotions rather than react to them - When you learn to observe unpleasant emotions rather than react to them, they will not have as much control over you in stressful situations.
  • Label emotions - When faced with an employee projecting unpleasant emotion, resist the urge to rise to their state; label the emotion instead. For example, if someone is projecting anger at you, calmly and directly say “Jill, it seems to me you are angry.” This provides the opportunity for the other person to observe what they’re feeling instead of reacting to it. Ignoring unpleasant emotions does little to improve this type of situation; in fact, it can make things worse.

Leaders are human. We experience the full range of emotions and must find a way to manage them while running the business and supporting others in the organization. This includes managing unpleasant emotions that may come up at inopportune moments. Our behaviour and the way we manage these situations has a direct impact on the employee experience, and how our team members, in turn, learn to manage their own emotions.


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