When boats pass you by on a lake, they leave a wake — a trail of frothing waves that, even if you didn’t actually see the boat pass by, tell you that one did. Human beings also leave a trail behind; we leave emotional wakes. A growing body of research demonstrates how quickly and deeply humans, usually unconsciously, absorb and then mirror the emotions of those around them and how these emotions impact our state of mind and relationships. We tend to experience these phenomena as an “aftertaste” following an interaction with someone. Some interactions leave us feeling enriched and understood: a positive afterglow. But others might leave us with a bad taste in our mouth, with negative emotions and feelings. This works in both directions: Just as we are affected by the emotions of those who surround us, our emotions impact others. When we spend time with positive people, we are often more cooperative, more energized and less stressed, whereas negativity permeates our relationships and can lead to increased stress, anxiety and a negative outlook on life. Regardless of age or culture we all intuitively absorb and send out emotional wakes. Even my college-aged kids tell me that their dorm rooms are draped with posters that say things like, “Your vibe is your tribe.”
As a leader, being aware of and managing the emotional impact you have on others is critical. Corporate culture — the everyday behavior that makes up the feel of any given work environment — is often defined heavily by the personality and emotions of the person in charge. Some leaders create stressful, anxious and draining environments while others create friendly, upbeat and fun ones. This inherently has an impact on the strength and efficacy of a team as well as their ability to take risks and generate new ideas. So, what are some practical ways that leaders can actively manage the emotional wake they leave behind?
1. Invest in becoming a master of self-awareness. With all the distractions and change in the workplace and the pressure to deliver results faster and at a cheaper rate, it’s easy to lose a sense of the emotional state of your mind, of how you are reacting to things around you and the impact it has on others. We tend to judge others based on their actions (i.e., what we observe), but when it comes to ourselves, we only look at our intentions (what we planned in our heads), rarely taking the time to objectively look at our actions when we are triggered, and how others react to them. For example, through lots of practice, I have noticed that when I get anxious or am in a hurry, my voice heats up. My responses get faster and shriller. As a result, those around me might perceive me as angry or shrewish. So now when I recognize my voice changing, it’s a cue to slow down and examine what I am communicating and the impact it’s having on those around me. As you begin to understand and respond faster to these signals, you will become better able to align your emotional messaging with who you are (or want to be) as a leader.
2. Become an expert at reading people. Being able to understand a situation quickly is often about being aware of hidden or weaker messages, especially those communicated through nonverbal behavior. Most of us are not great at recognizing and identifying changes in our own feelings early enough to do something about it, so recognizing them in others can be a challenge. But we do know things physically before we know them cognitively. Get good at picking up on the signals that something is off and start trusting yourself. For me, when things feel funny, I usually get a tense, sudden malaise in the pit of my stomach. I cannot articulate why, but I know it’s time to focus, to start paying attention to what subtext and nonverbal messages are present, to understand what is really going on and why I’m reacting to it. This, in turn, allows me to modulate my response. Paying attention to both nonverbal as well as verbal messages from others gets easier as you do it more and soon becomes second nature.
3. Get strategic about your conversations. Most negative wakes come from conflicts or misunderstandings, so learning to have clear, open conversations with people will help you create positive interactions and minimize negative ones. Here’s how:
• Be clear about your communication objectives in a conversation. What do you want to achieve? How will you frame the discussion? How you frame this determines the quality of the conversation. What tone will you use? If it doesn’t come easily, think ahead of what kinds of questions you can ask to get the heart of what is really going on. What tone do you want to use?
• Listen more than you speak. Work to understand the real issue by clarifying meaning and asking open-ended questions. Delve deeper with prompts, such as “Tell me more,” or “Help me understand that better.”
• Develop a service mindset. First, focus on helping the other party get whatever they need from the conversation. The more you can help them create their “best outcome,” the more you create a motivating, inspiring environment around you.
Your emotional wake is powerful. It has the power to disrupt and destabilize. But it also has the power to galvanize and energize people, and it really is in your control.