Schools trained me to identify and solve problems. To do that, teachers encouraged me to brainstorm potential solutions to a problem, calculate the costs and benefits of each, and choose the option whose benefits most exceeded its costs.
When I started working, I became aware that there was another -- more powerful -- level of reality about which I had close to no understanding: the realm of human emotion. For me, the discovery of the concepts of emotional intelligence and the emotional quotient (EQ) were powerful revelations.
However, since I have a relatively low EQ, merely being aware of these concepts did not suddenly enable me to acquire a Clintonian ability to feel others' pain. Nevertheless, I have learned something useful: People do not care what you know until they know that you care.
This comes to mind in considering a LinkedIn post featuring a CEO's crying selfie that appeared in my feed a few weeks ago. The post featured Braden Wallake, who had recently laid off two of his 17 employees at HyperSocial, his sales and marketing company. Below a prominent photo of his red-face and tear-swollen eyes he wrote, "This will be the most vulnerable thing I'll ever share," according to The New York Times.
His post generated more than 10,000 comments -- many along the lines of my reaction, which was that his post was a brazen attention grab. To be fair, Noah Smith, one of the HyperSocial employees whom Wallake let go, said he only wanted to join a new company whose CEO shared Wallake's "positive outlook on life," according to the Times.
Here are three steps business leaders should take to figure out how much emotion to share.
1. Be clear about your values.
Business leaders are not likely to change their values. However, before they decide to share their emotions with their people, they should make it clear to themselves and others what they value.
There are many different kinds of leaders who embrace different values. As I wrote in August, here are two examples:
- Those who value winning and don't care who gets hurt in pursuit of victory. An example is Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who suggested that employees who are not willing to work hard should quit.
- Those who value making employees and customers happy. Zoom Video CEO Eric Yuan concluded -- I think correctly -- that a new videoconferencing company could use these values to take market share from incumbents like Webex.
Depending on your values, you might have very different feelings about the same topic. For example, a CEO like Zuckerberg might express pride were Meta to replace poorer performers with more skilled and motivated employees. By contrast, CEOs such as Yuan might feel deeply saddened were they to announce layoffs.
2. Share emotions that will let people know that you care.
Without letting people know you care, business leaders cannot inspire their employees. As Carole Robin, who formerly taught Stanford business school's popular Interpersonal Dynamics course, told the Times, "Up-and-coming leaders of the future ... have discovered that actually it's almost impossible to really inspire people in the absence of feelings."
If many of your employees have short tenures and have mostly worked together online, then business leaders must share emotions and encourage others to do the same. In my view, business leaders should encourage their people to talk about their favorite nonwork activities, share their experiences raising their families, or talk about a shared interest in specific games, movies, or TV programs.
By contrast, if most of your people have worked at your company for a long time before the pandemic began, you may have established strong emotional bonds and routines for keeping them strong. Such leaders simply need to keep following the routines that work and create new ones to adapt to change.
3. Don't share emotions that make people uncomfortable.
Sadly, it is not clear where to draw the line between enough emotional sharing to inspire people and too much emotional sharing that makes your people uncomfortable. Clearly Wallake went over the line.
So, in my view, did Ryan Caldbeck, former CEO of CircleUp, a financial technology company. As he told the Times, Caldbeck was at the office with his leadership team going around the room asking how was your weekend, and he told his team, 'Oh, I got in a difficult fight with my wife,'"
Such sharing is way over the line and makes everyone else uncomfortable -- rather than feeling inspired. To be fair to Wallake, Caldbeck, and other leaders who have gone over the line, it is possible that negative reactions to their oversharing will keep them from going over the line in the future.
Follow these three tips and you can share just the right amount of emotion with your people.