August 31, 2022


Once upon a time, when newsrooms were predominantly male workplaces, there were editors who yelled, who kicked trash cans, who had fights and arguments in the middle of the office.

These stories became kind of legendary by the time I joined a newsroom in the late 1990s, because that kind of temperamental display was no longer socially acceptable.

Yet, patriarchal norms still persisted. Being tough, unemotional and “not very feminine” was still the prevailing culture.

As a young reporter, I absorbed this mindset. Because, as a woman, I didn’t want to be seen as weak or too sensitive. This was never said out loud; it was an implicit code. And because I didn’t consider myself an emotional person — and had spent most of my life assimilating into cultures — this didn’t bother me.

Then I became a manager.

And I learned, slowly, that being a good boss means caring about your team members. That if we are to be empathetic leaders, we have to connect via … emotion! And that the paradox of good leadership is to provide a safe space for people to have and show emotions, but also know when it will help or harm our professional standing.

My approach has been: I’m a human first, boss second. For me to be a good boss, I first have to be a good human to the ones I work with.

That means knowing that, just like me, my teammates have good days and bad days. That we have lives and experiences outside of work that can affect how we do our work. That I can be 20 years younger than some of my direct reports, but still find ways to connect with them and help them succeed at their jobs.

All of this takes empathy — something renowned leadership coach Brené Brown says is critical to being a great leader.

We should expect and allow for emotions at work — especially now, more than two years into a pandemic that hasn’t subsided. But we need to act on emotions in a way that preserves psychological safety for the room. 

In my opening example, think of the messaging the male-dominated newsrooms sent: That while workers were expected to be unemotional, men had outbursts anyway (and later became legendary for it). Who would feel safe in this tinderbox environment? Is it only allowed for certain people?

So how do we thread the needle between feeling our feelings and preserving psychological safety? What should you do when you have to deliver difficult news, when someone has missed a deadline, or when you yourself are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

Here are some of the ideas I offer new managers about handling big emotions at work:

When you have to deliver difficult news.

  • Be clear about the purpose of the meeting. Prepare yourself for a wide range of emotional reactions, from anger to sadness to none at all. Do not be surprised by any of them. Accept them in the moment, give space for them. Don’t get defensive, even if you are brought up in the conversation. Just listen. Then you both need some transition time before going back to work to process the information.

When someone has not met expectations.

  • Emotions can be reflective. So if you present yourself as angry or disappointed, it may get mirrored in the conversation by the other person. Instead, try to show up with curiosity. You want to know what’s happening behind the scenes. Is everything OK? You may be surprised to learn (like I did) that this is not a question any other manager has asked before. Then help set new expectations based on what you learn. Failure is allowed; silence about it should not be.

When you’re mad as hell.

  • I have written many flippant, sarcastic, defensive emails — and deleted them. When it comes to anger, remember that while the feeling is valid, acting on it can be harmful. For me, writing out what I’m angry about is enough to release my feelings. Then I get calm: What results do I want from this email? It’s often not to share that I’m angry; it’s to share that something is bothering me. By not sending a fraught email, I preserve the relationship with the recipient. I keep the focus on maintaining, not breaking, our connection.
  • Other things I’ve done: Turned off Zoom video and sound for a minute when I needed to regain composure; challenged decisions in meetings and then followed up to better explain myself; vented to friends and bosses I could trust. I chose when to stop interactions with my peers that could derail a group. I find safe spaces to release that valve.

To be an inclusive leader and foster an inclusive work environment, you have to allow for and welcome our human capacity to feel. 

As executive coach Soo Bong Peer writes in The Essential Diversity Mindset: “The leadership qualities that connect and bring people together (humility, empathy, open-mindedness and courage) can be cultivated in anyone because they are human qualities.”

Harnessing your emotional intelligence is one of the topics covered in the Leading Change Inclusively workshop at PMDMC23, as well as in Greater Public’s Inclusive Manager Program.