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  • Emily Mathison

Have you cried at work?

Updated: Aug 7

Emotions in Leadership: A Liability? Or Moments of Power.

Throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, has attracted local fandom and praise for her candor and humanity during COVID-19 press conferences. She first stole our hearts when she cried in a press briefing. And while Henry’s emotional reaction came as a shock for many, to hear and see someone in a position of leadership be so affected by the weight of the crisis she’s been tasked with – why should it?


If we cannot celebrate emotions from leaders as moments of power and demonstrations of their competency, we risk settling for diluted public and private leaders who don’t give a shit. We also risk losing high performing employees and the commitment of our teams.

Demonstrating emotional intelligence (EQ) is repeatedly linked to effective leadership. Leaders with high EQ are keenly able to self-regulate, as well as recognize and respond to the emotions of their followers. Research by Talent Smart has pinned high EQ as the strongest predictor of workplace performance. Talent Smart found 90% of top performers they studied to have a high EQ, and this was true across all industries, at all levels, in every region across the world.


There’s endless research to show that emotions are key to everything it takes to be a good leader: the ability to engender trust, set a vision, motivate, learn from failure, communicate powerfully and – perhaps most importantly – allow employees to feel safe in showing their own humanity.

But the public reaction to Dr. Henry is, unfortunately, the exception. Leaders, especially females, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a U.S. political Representative, consistently receive backlash and mocking for – god forbid – shedding tears. This criticism for genuine empathy is detrimental and disheartening. Is this not the degree of compassion we should expect from government and health leaders? Ocasio-Cortez defends herself by tweeting: “It is time we trash the idea that empathy = leadership weakness. When people hurt, we should hurt too. That’s what good leaders do. It adds urgency & humanity to our decision making. Suppressing emotion can lead to aggression, impulsivity, & other erosions of leadership ability.”

L.T., a finance professional from Victoria, B.C., shared her recent experience of an annual review where she was asked to provide bottom-up feedback on management’s performance. Due to previous upsetting incidents from the same management leading the review, she started to choke up. She took a moment to compose herself but said that she could read it on their faces - they saw her as weak for showing emotion. They weren’t willing or, perhaps due to low EQ, able, to make space for her emotions. They were only prepared to receive stoic feedback and she felt penalized for almost crying.


Women are unfairly criticized for being more emotional than men, and for leaders this can be further emphasized due to their high visibility and additional scrutiny. Brescoll suggests that female leaders have to navigate two “complex minefields” in order to be successful: “(1) identifying how much emotion should be displayed and (2) identifying what kind of emotions should be displayed.” Brescoll adds that female leaders can also be penalized for not showing enough emotion, “because unemotional women are seen as failing to fulfill their warm, communal role as women”. Geez - minefield is right.



If we cannot celebrate emotions from leaders as moments of power and demonstrations of their competency, we risk settling for diluted public and private leaders who don’t give a shit. We also risk losing high performing employees and the commitment of our teams.


Our soapbox moment: Go cheer on these examples of high EQ! Normalize it. Lead by example within your own organization. In times of crisis, empathy is what unites us and moves us forward.


We shouldn’t be afraid to cry if and when that is what feels right. It can be your moment of power.

Have you cried at work? Tell us.




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