I’m working with a global brand whose executive team is exhausted.  There are many reasons which could point to the reasons why: a world recovering from the impact of Covid-19, a war in Europe, the charge of customers to buy online, a challenging economy, difficulty in recruiting the best talent, trying to get the workforce back into the office… the list is endless.

And yet… as businesses everywhere grapple with the consequences of all these undoubted difficulties, one powerful reason behind the exhaustion is easily overlooked.  It is the challenge and responsibility of ‘emotional labour’.  

Wait, what?  

Yes, ‘emotional labour’ is a ‘thing’ in leadership.

Harvard Business Review published – as they always do – some brilliant research in 2022 which explores ‘The Emotional Labour of Being A Leader’, and in some ways it explains what leaders have known for years.  In order to be effective, we need to balance optimism and pragmatism, we need to translate powerful emotions from those above us into messages that will enthuse our teams, we need to be seen as calm and in control whenever things look like they are falling apart.  Here’s another list which is endless.  Anyone who has ever managed others will know that this means there is always an emotional issue or difficulty going on for at least one member of their team, which needs our support in some way.

And that’s emotional labour.

So what?

Well, so there are so many angles to explore here aren’t there? 

  • Let’s start with ourselves.  How has the emotional labour I’ve undertaken impacted how I’m now ‘showing up’ at work to my team?  What’s been the impact on my resilience? Authenticity?  Energy levels?  If the answers to these questions are ‘not good’, what is it that I must now do do to rest, recharge and restore my zest for what I do and why I do it?

  • Now let’s turn to our teams.  There’s also the ‘how’s my team’ angle.  If our view is that we’re in a good place, but our team might not be (because of the amount of emotional labour they’ve undertaken), what’s the impact?  How is it affecting their professional relationships?  Productivity?  Engagement?  What do they really need now?

  • Oh, and one more challenge – to do all of this  for ourselves and others in the hybrid world of work, which is here forever more

As we mark the third year since the pandemic began, and take a moment to look back at everything that has happened to us and our teams, we will have engaged in emotional labour as never before.  It’s easy to be flippant; one leader said to me that this is just ‘tea and sympathy’… which is fundamentally to miss the point… and the opportunity.  Every leader – no matter their role, industry, geography or economy is in the business of relationships first and foremost.  Being an engaging leader, conveying presence, impact, authority and driving that ‘I’ll follow you anywhere’ loyalty amongst teams, colleagues, customers and stakeholders alike means reflecting on how we really are, what we really need to be even more energized amidst the challenges, and how we can help our teams to step up, deliver more and have a brilliant time as they do so.  

That’s emotional labour and that’s leadership….meaningful, effective, inspiring leadership.

Until next time…..

Sarah Brummitt FFIPI AICI CIP