The Complex Emotions of Leadership

It seems as if very few people are willing or capable of exploring complex emotions; especially leaders. Why is it that leaders frequently miss opportunities to engage and support team members as they experience complex emotions? Do leaders lack understanding of complex emotions? Has time become such a scarce resource that we only engage challenging emotions when necessary? Are we still addled by the antiquated expectation of “check your emotions at the door?” Have we become overly reliant on peer to peer support? For the record, I do not have the answers to all of these questions. I do know, that if we desire the best of our team members, contrasting getting the most of them, leaders must be willing and capable of engaging with complex emotions.

Now that I have lost the readership of the efficiency & ergonomic oriented leaders….here we go.

Let’s first consider the term “simple emotions”. A simple emotion is often a pleasant sensation that is easily recognizable, understood, and experienced. As an example, feeling happy about a positive outcome or a new friendship at work is quickly processed, fleeting in nature, and examined or experienced topically. Please, don’t be confused by this depiction. Simple emotions are the building blocks for positive outcomes and sustainable results; I am not minimizing them. Rather, I am suggesting that simple emotions mostly express the upsides of our experiences which is only a part of – the whole story.

“Complex emotions” are quite different from simple emotions. Complex emotions are often labeled with a single feeling or sentiment such as sadness or pain but they almost always have many tributaries feeding them. As an example, if we are sad or depressed over the souring of a relationship with a supervisor or coworker, that single emotion when examined, may be underscored by resentment, insecurity, frustration, or disappointment. In this instance, sadness is the manifestation of the real issues. Recognizing emotions as they surface can be a great starting point for a conversation while remembering complex emotions travel in packs and are often attached to other feelings. It can be complicated, but we must be willing to do more than scratch the surface. We need to dig in, ask questions, chip away at the obstructions, and help our team members safely return to a place of well-being.

Sound like a lot to ask of a leader? It certainly is. In case you want to fast forward and ask the question, “how in the hell am I going to find that kind of time” – short answer -I don’t know. However, I will guarantee that your investment into the complex emotions of your team members will lay the foundation for trust throughout your organization. Trust leads to honesty – honesty leads to engagement – engagement leads to loyalty and alas – you have arrived at creativity and innovation. These ideas: trust, honesty, engagement, creativity, and innovation take us head-on, smack-dab, into growth. If we know that trust-building leads to growth, I say to you – glorious and occasionally cynical leaders –  “why in the hell wouldn’t you take the time to engage with the complex emotions of your team members?”

In my next post, we will further explore these ideas and offer up some practical solutions on how leaders can learn to engage with the emotional experiences of their team members and all stakeholder groups. Until then, Lead On!

As always, please offer up your comments and experiences.


One comment

  1. Robert · · Reply

    Bravo Evan!

    You are such a gifted reader and your passion comes through.

    And you tease the reader with a follow-up article. How brilliant is that?

    Be well,




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