April 8, 2019 //

Emotional Transparency – Friend or Foe to Leadership?

One of the key tenets of Agile Leadership is transparency…and that includes emotional transparency. But for most people, including me personally, this particular principle almost always brings with it some internal conflict.

I’ve always known that keeping secrets inherently divides humans, and erodes trust in any given relationship. Conversely, however, I wasn’t confident that “emotional nudity” has a role in business relationships. 

And to complicate matters even further, I’m a female leader, against which just the potential for emotional “instability” is the weapon most commonly wielded. I mean, vulnerability is the enemy of chicks-in-charge…right? 

Needless to say, it’s a topic on which I’ve done research for quite some time.

Recently I found a 2017 Study published in The Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies that I found profoundly interesting. It concluded that when leaders express their true feelings and vulnerabilities, it BOOSTS employee morale, by instilling a sense of “psychological safety”. And that got me thinking, because I had long feared that a leader’s emotional transparency would have just the opposite effect on their employees.  Hmmmm…..

Cue music…and into this conversation waltzes the NeuroLeadership Institute, NLI (a global research organization that studies the neuroscience of leadership).  The NLI asserts that if we want to understand what motivates and engages employees, we need to understand that human beings are inherently social, and thereby highly attuned to social cues…even in business environments.  

So…I take that to mean that we respond to “social cues” in the boardroom exactly as we did in the classroom. Hmmmm….

NLI research shows that humans are sensitive to five “categories” of “social threat and reward”.  When the human brain registers a “social threat” in any one of those five categories, it responds just as it does to physical pain, triggering changes in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior) that undermine our ability to forge trusting relationships.  Conversely, when the brain perceives a “social reward” in one of those five categories, our ability to engage in problem-solving, collaboration, and creative thinking is exponentially enhanced.  

And in fact, the NLI identifies one of those five “social threat and reward” categories to be Certainty (the other four being Status, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness).  And in my mind, it stands to reason that concealing anything of importance (fear, uncertainty, shame, etc.) could lead to UNcertainty among those around you.  I mean, I think we can all agree that leaders who are not emotionally transparent are inherently restricting access to the “true” thought processes behind their decisions (such that their WHYs don’t match their WHATs), and that, in and of itself, can generate UNcertainty among the rank and file.  But more importantly, the NLI contends that, for most people, the brain perceives ambiguity as inherently threatening, and employees tend to interpret (even if it’s subconscious) a lack of full disclosure as “social rejection”…and suddenly our prefrontal cortexes are firing like it’s the 4thof July, and we may not even know why.  It stands to reason, then, that the result will be anxious, untrusting, and equally“opaque” employees, who are much more resistant to engaging in the cornerstone of Agility…namely collaboration.   Hmmmm…..

In the end….perhaps it’s my less-than-ideal social experiences in Junior High that are shaping my buy-in into this theory…but it certainly does resonate with me.  What about you?  How emotionally transparent are you with your team members?  Has this blog influenced your thinking in that regard?  And what about those of you who have had emotionally transparent leaders…what has been your experience with them?  Leave your thoughts/idea/examples below!

By the way, because this topic is so near and dear to my heart, I also released a podcast on 3/19/19 (Ep 4. of Becoming a True Agile LeaderTM), in which I dramatized the topic using two fictional characters:  “Linda”, a sales manager who is NOT in favor of emotional transparency, and “Sam”, her poor obtuse sales rep, who is oblivious to “less direct” social cues.  In the end, we all have to ask ourselves…”What will happen to Sam’s dog, Cheetoh???!!!”

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