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Managing emotions without negatively impacting the team

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees looking for advice about managing others.

I often feel that I have to put on a happy face to ensure that my team stays positive. This is draining — I don't want to feel responsible for emotional dragging my team down. How do I manage my own emotions without feeling like I have to pretend or negatively impact my team?

Our first therapist suggests...

Show vulnerability

There is nothing wrong with your team seeing that you are not an unremittingly happy person. After all, who is?

Managing a team is at times a bit like managing a family. If you try and show your children that you are always happy they get the impression that they always have to be happy too, and that isn’t a good thing for anyone.

It’s fine for you to show your true emotions. What’s damaging is allowing them to come out in destructive ways which, ironically, is much more likely if you suppress them.

So, if you are feeling angry about a conversation you’ve had with your boss or peers, you don’t need to be sharing that but it’s absolutely fine for you to acknowledge it to them: "I’m having a bit of a tough day today." That that willingness to show humanity and vulnerability will demonstrate that it’s OK for them to do the same.

When you worry that your moods will drag your team down you are taking responsibility for their emotions and their emotions are not yours to control. Just because you are sometimes struggling it doesn’t mean that they too will struggle. We are all responsible for our own emotional wellbeing.

By trying to appear constantly positive you are depriving yourself and your team of an important aspect of working life, namely the strength to keep moving when you feel negative emotion pulling you down.

If you can show to your team that even when you are not feeling your best you can remain professional and consistent whilst still being mindful of your own emotional needs you will provide a model that will help them to do the same.

Finally, recognise when your emotions are overwhelming you and when you need to take a break or some time out. If you are really on your knees there is nothing wrong with turning the phone off for a while and making yourself unavailable. Part of being a good leader is showing your team how important it is to prioritise your own needs.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Own your emotions

My first question would be, why do you believe you ”have to put a happy face on” for the team all the time? I totally understand that as a manager you feel a responsibility towards your team and in turn their performance and their mood. As humans, we unconsciously co-regulate with other humans. It is human nature to pick up on the vibes of others and so you are being very considerate by making sure your ‘vibes’ are helpful. As a team, being mindful of what energy we bring to the group is important. However, it doesn’t mean that we always have to show up as “happy”.

It is unrealistic to believe that we can be happy all the time and so why, as a manager, do you believe YOU need to be? You are going to have off days; days when you just feel low, or when events outside of work are impacting your mood. It is totally understandable to feel sad, angry or worried at times. What you can do on these days is just gently let your team know; be congruent with them. Then either take yourself and your vibes away (work in a different office/from home), or just allow yourself to be quieter or more withdrawn at these times and the team will know that's OK. This means that you are being genuine to your own emotions and mindful of your team’s.

What this also does is offer more helpful messages. It’s helpful to your body to honour the energy it feels at the time — I feel sad, so today it’s OK to be sad. Your body and mind won’t be in conflict and instead you can seek what you need (quiet space, a hug, etc) rather than overriding your needs. It also sends a really important message to your team — “it’s OK to not be OK”. If we’re role modelling ‘happy’ all the time, then we are implicitly giving the message that “We must be happy all the time” which overrides our true need at times and may mean the team are stressed but don’t feel permission to show it. Also,  our co-regulation skills can at times pick up inauthentic messages from others so don’t assume they don’t know when you’re hiding it.

There are of course times when it can be helpful to shake off a bad mood and move on from something. When the mood offers little help to the day and doesn’t need attention. At these times, you can choose to slap on a smile and ‘fake it to make it’.

There are many different ways to navigate our lives, from hour to hour. Go with what makes sense to you (what you need) whilst being considerate and congruent with those around you.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips to manage your emotions

You don’t want to pretend to be happy all the time, but you want to have a positive influence emotionally on your team. It is true that a manager’s emotions can enormously influence a team, so I understand your concern. I also understand that you are human and cannot realistically be a ray of sunshine every second!

The following are tips on managing emotions which may help:

  • Do things regularly that replenish and energise you. Try relaxation strategies like yoga, meditation, massage, getting out in nature, having a hot bath, progressive muscle relaxation, engaging in hobbies and interests.
  • Use journaling to release thoughts and emotions. It might help to acknowledge what went well each day as well as anything that was difficult and how you can improve things tomorrow.
  • Talk to others about how you feel. This may be family or friends or your own manager or peers.
  • Take breaks during the working day to recover and reset where possible.
  • Try deep-breathing exercises when you feel stressed at work. It’s easy to do these even when others are around.
  • Accept that you don’t have to be happy all the time and that’s OK. Nobody is going to smile day long. It feels like there is a belief that you should always be happy and that your team needs this to keep going. This thought alone probably makes you unhappy! While it’s true that all employees want a work environment that is positive, they do not need a manager who is perfect or superhuman. Managers who criticise, complain, and vent to their teams are the type of manager’s who breed negativity and anxiety. You didn’t mention that these things are an issue for you. Is there really a need to worry?
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