Do Leaders (Now) Need to be Therapists?

New Science of Emotional Well-being Series: Part 1

For many, remote work has brought about an unprecedented sense of uncertainty, isolation, and struggle. These are Petri dishes for all kinds of emotions that can sap energy, strain motivation, and get in the way of productivity and well-being. 

These are emotions related to anxiety, stress, burn-out, and isolation. They are normal, but not inevitable if we learn how to manage them. Leaders have unique opportunities to make it more possible for people on their teams to struggle less and enjoy more in their work and life.

The latest brain research on emotional well-being, championed by people like Lisa Feldman Barrett with Northeastern University in Boston, is fairly mind-blowing, to say the least. Most of what we have all learned about emotions is now not supported by science. 

We were taught that emotions are triggered by situations. The reality is our brain produces millions of predictive simulations to create emotions that make sense of our experience and prepare our body for action. Emotions don’t happen to us; they happen by us. Emotional well-being is experiencing ourself as the author of our emotions. 

Emotional well-being matters because how we feel is the prime cause of how we interact, learn, and perform. The science now supports our intuition: how we feel is how we do.

Based on the latest brain science of how emotions work, the good news is that leaders don’t need training in psychotherapy in order to support people struggling on their teams. 

Here are three basics people need for emotional well-being in their work, and in their life. They need to feel heard, they need to feel quieter emotions, and they need to feel optimism. In brief check-ins, one-on-ones, and team huddles, leaders can create the conditions to make these more possible. And they only require what leaders as good human beings already know how to do.

1 – Feeling heard

When people feel heard, they feel more supported and understood for how they feel. This makes them feel more “sane” about whatever emotions come and go in their experience. People feel heard when we listen with curiosity, attunement, and validation. 

Curiosity is asking for more specific examples of what they’re talking about. When someone is particularly sensitive or upset, we can invite more examples by saying we’d like to know more. Attunement is asking people how they feel, about anything. It is not suggesting to them how they do or should feel. It is giving them space to simply name all the emotions and layers of emotions in their present experience.

Validating is the alternative to agreeing or disagreeing. It is acknowledging the truth of their experience, that things are for them exactly as they say they are. Curiosity, attunement, and validating work because they create the conditions for people to feel cared about. They are the opposite of lecturing, bullying, and pretending their feelings and emotions are either non-existent or irrelevant.

2 – Feeling quieter emotions 

When we are in moments of most emotional distress, one problem is the volume of our emotions. 

Emotions happen on a volume continuum from louder to quieter. Any emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, can be louder or quieter. Louder emotions demand more of our attention; quieter require less. 

Emotions become quieter when they are specific to our experience. Emotional categories and cliches like glad, sad, and mad are not situation-specific and therefore can be louder than quieter. Our language determines the volume and range of our emotions. The more range of emotions we compose, the more range of actions we have available. Our range of actions is equal to our range of emotions.

There are four questions that can help people compose quieter emotions. 

    1. What are all the kinds of feelings and emotions you’re feeling now? 
    2. What in this situation is true for you? 
    3. What might be true? 
    4. Is there anything in this situation you like happening or would also like to happen?

With these simple, powerful questions, we are helping people compose new emotions for any situation of struggle. Whatever they give language to becomes their more situationally-specific emotions. 

Feelings are physical sensations. As soon as we put words to feelings, we compose emotions. We then weave what we hear from these questions with something like: “It sounds like the feeling when…” Emotions become quieter and we have a wider range of emotions when we compose more granular emotions using these four questions. The resilience of well-being becomes more possible, whatever our world and life are like. Emotional well-being is experiencing ourself as the author of our emotions. 

3 – Feeling optimism 

People who work and live with optimism are creative and resilient. Optimism is the belief that things can get better. This belief is rooted in our sense of agency, our ability to experiment in our life and work.

We create a culture of optimism when we invite and engage people in continuously experimenting with different ways of getting work done and delivering value to others. It is cultivating growth and entrepreneurial mindsets that form the basis for personal, organizational, and market growth. People who feel a sense of agency feel a durable sense of motivation, value, and belongingness.

Experiments can span days or weeks. They can be individual and shared among people on the team. When they’re complete, we either engage our learning to use what works or try something else. This creates a sense of optimism where people feel they can overcome any challenges that come their way.

These simple approaches to emotional well-being have basic requirements: listening, asking questions, being empathetic, and inviting creativity. Every leader has what it takes to make emotional well-being more possible with people on their teams. Everyone and everything benefits. Emotional well-being is the optimal condition for meaningful contribution and growth.

This post includes excerpts from The Poetry of Human Emotion: A Science-based Guide to Emotional Well-being (Jack Ricchiuto, 2020 NuanceWorks). Learn more here.


About Jack

In my late twenties I had the good fortune to have mentors who were practice leaders in what was then called the Human Potentials Movement. They inspired me to help organizations and communities realize their potential in ways they never imagined. It became clear this was the core gift that would shape the past 40 years.