As the negative impact of an unhealthy working environment is so great, extra care must be taken when recruiting managers. They should also receive proper guidance in their roles, writes associate professor of management Annie Haver
As the negative impact of an unhealthy working environment is so great, extra care must be taken when recruiting managers. They should also receive proper guidance in their roles, writes associate professor of management Annie Haver

Managers need to be good with emotions – or they risk damaging their employee’s health and ability to perform at work

OPINION: At worst, managers who lack emotional intelligence can be playing Russian roulette with their colleagues’ health.

Published

Management is about gaining credibility and trust from the people you employ, as well as those further up in the system. Any manager wishing to promote a culture of good health and optimal performance must have a high degree of emotional competence.

Managers with emotional intelligence are not only in touch with their own emotions, but are also able to manage these and the emotions of others appropriately. Such managers have the ability to accurately interpret what is going on around them, have a great degree of inner motivation and are skilful at relationship building. They also have a high degree of self-confidence, understand how they are perceived by others, and can effectively manoeuvre between different emotion-regulation strategies.

Such strategies can be whether managers are able to see challenges – whether in their own lives or that of others – in a new and better light. And in these situations, whether managers are able to show genuine natural emotions or rather supress or fake their emotions in front of others.

Different emotion-regulation strategies can be employed consciously or unconsciously and involve cognitive control as to how the manager appears in relation to other people. Managers who choose wise and healthy emotion-regulation strategies often know how to handle challenging situations and promote health in the workplace. This is a vital skill, as, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), poor mental health has become a great cause for concern in many places of work and educational contexts.

Managers are the ‘emotional architects’ of the workplace

The importance of emotions has been discussed for thousands of years. Philosophers, such as Socrates and Aristotle were preoccupied with emotions and claimed that emotions were an important aspect of our existence, self-insight and wise decision-making.

Today we know that emotions are closely associated with finding meaning and objectives in our lives. Emotions are not just about feeling or experiencing, but also how we express our emotions in relation to other people, including how we perceive other people’s emotions and how those emotions affect our behaviour. Our emotions can be helpful or even unfortunate, but then they must be managed and regulated in an appropriate way.

Why are emotions important in leadership? Well, up until the year 2000, emotions were described as being irrational and feminine. Emotions did not belong in the context of leadership because a leader was supposed to be rational and decisive. However, early on in the 2000s, researchers began to understand that emotions played a significant role in leadership.

Today, managers are often described as the ‘emotional architects’ of the workplace and are therefore very important role models in the emotional work that takes place there. Everything the manager does and says – both explicitly and implicitly – is interpreted by the co-workers in the organisation. This interpretation of a manager’s emotions can be either health-promoting or damaging to the co-workers’ health and performance. What many are not aware of is that it can also be personally damaging to the manager.

No right or wrong regulation of emotions

As context is prerequisite to choosing an emotion regulation strategy, it is important to emphasise that there are no right or wrong emotions or strategies. The point is that regulating emotions should not make you sick – your emotions should be a facilitator, not a hindrance. Managers must be sure of how they are perceived by others and aware of what constitutes healthy or unhealthy strategies for emotion regulation.

Healthy regulation of emotions is of great importance in managing stress, performance, learning, creativity, relations, wellbeing and mental and physical health. Less healthy regulation strategies, such as hiding and supressing emotions can lead to burn-out, stress, and in the worst cases, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disorders.

A whole host of things determine how we manage stress in the workplace. These include personality, our own health, our position in the hierarchy, the context (e.g. centralised contra decentralised management), lack of autonomy, heavy work load, exclusion or bullying and destructive leadership.

Empathy concerns our ability to place ourselves in another person’s position or frame of experience. Managers who exercise power can reduce empathy in both themselves and their co-workers. If a manager is also manipulative and expresses negative emotions, apathy, arrogance and frustration, this lays the foundation for a destructive workplace with serious health consequences for co-workers.

In workplaces like this it may be challenging for co-workers with little power to choose healthy regulation strategies. When a co-worker is anxious about a manager, they may go into ‘survival mode’ and try to create a façade of security and control. All their energy goes into playing a role and they fail to see how others are faring. As a result of going into their shell, stress symptoms may follow.

Workplaces like this become dangerous when everyone is playing the game – everyone is faking it, even the boss and the boss’s boss. For this reason, hierarchies of power is an extremely sensitive factor in working with emotions. At worst, a manager may be playing Russian roulette with a colleague’s health.

Alarm bells should ring if a manager cannot create or see the importance of creating a healthy workplace. As the negative impact of an unhealthy working environment is so great, extra care must be taken when recruiting managers. They should also receive proper guidance in their roles.

Is the ‘mask’ we wear healthy or unhealthy?

We often distinguish between external and internal regulation of emotions. External regulation may imply that we wish to express an emotion that is not genuine. For example, managers may choose to show great joy and enthusiasm for something they have been told to do by their superiors but in reality they are frustrated and opting to fake it.

There are several reasons why managers choose unhealthy regulation strategies in their meeting with co-workers. The excuse may be that they wish to be on a good footing with top management, that they want to be liked and accepted or that they want to make progress on matters they believe are of importance. The latter is often governed by instrumental objectives such as profitability and measurable performance.

So, from time to time it is actually necessary to put on a ‘mask’, and it need not be unhealthy. Nevertheless, managers must be aware of the emotion strategies they are employing. Ultimately, it is about managers creating trust and being able to ethically and wisely manoeuvre the diversity of emotions that can arise, both in themselves and in their colleagues.

Emotions and health are closely intertwined and we need a holistic approach to understand each human as an individual. To succeed in an increasingly complex world it is therefore essential for today’s managers to understand the meaning of emotions in leadership.