Emotional Availability in Leadership
Updated: Oct 14
In my observations, extraordinary leaders and professionals are those that are emotionally available. Being emotionally available means you have the courage and the capacity to feel feelings, the feelings of others, and your own.
Emotional availability is more than empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is outward moving. Emotional availability, at least the way I define it in my work, goes both ways. You are aware of all feelings, theirs and yours, and at the same time, you do not let yourself be scared by them.
Being present is good, but not enough, because you can be present but still be immune to the feelings attached to interactions with others. You don't get the whole picture because some of the information is missing. Of course, excellent observation skills can be somewhat helpful and make for a better read of a situation. However, you will still miss the nuances, maybe the most important ones.
We talk mostly about this in terms of personal relationships. More often than not, emotional unavailability is the root cause of interpersonal conflicts and relationship mishaps. We are human beings. We don't draw strict lines between private and business. Our characteristics remain the same everywhere, albeit, in private life, they might be even more prominent. There we show more of ourselves.
Admittedly, it is also more noticeable there since, in individual relationships, feelings are part of the deal. In business, they are not. Furthermore, it is considered professional to stay emotionally detached and rational. Emotional unavailability is then the lazy shortcut to detachment. I would argue that one can be emotionally available and detached (i.e., not affected) at the same time, with some practice. That is the way of the master leader.
We know a lot about running organizations like a giant piece of machinery, and we run them that way. We optimize structures, processes, systems, and protocols. Where we lag and err is on the people's side of things. We have many open questions about people and where we lose most of our time, resources, and productivity.
Emotionally unavailable leaders impact organizations a whole lot. When leaders are emotionally unavailable, peers and direct reports shut down emotionally, too, to fit in. Then essential things do not get said or discussed—the quintessential elephants in the room.
Typically, people in organizations complain about the following three things which can result from some level of emotional unavailability:
1. Lack of communication despite hours and hours of face time
2. Ineffective meetings where issues are rehashed multiple times without a sense of resolution
3. Feeling frustrated, hopeless, left out, not heard, not seen, or not recognized.
Being emotionally available goes back to emotional maturity. The higher your emotional maturity, the higher your emotional availability will be. You can deal with more and complicated feelings and conflicts. If you are forty but emotionally only eight years old, having an adult conversation will be difficult.
So many of us have entered our lives in families that are not emotionally available. Potentially, the first we hear or deal with the subject may be in our twenties after a broken relationship if we are lucky. Schools and higher education do not discuss it or offer tools for the general public. So we develop ourselves without guidelines or signposts. At some point in our lives, we say, right, this is who I am and how I will stay. We cement our identity, characteristics, and habits into a persona. We say, "people don't change," and stay put.
I am pointing this out, not to pass judgment, but as a possible course of action for change. We can change if we choose to do so. If emotional unavailability is a root cause for most chronic problems in organizations (and outside), why not consider looking at it.
Especially now during the lockdown, that we have more quiet time for self-reflection:
First, consider five typical signs of emotional unavailability in action. Let us not look at others. Let us check ourselves. Ask: Are these my habits?
Non-stop monologues: Putting up a wall of words to protect ourselves from taking anything in, mostly talking about not genuinely relevant things but sound good and filling air space.
Pseudo-communication and non-relating: Stopping the monologue for a couple of minutes for the second monologue of a hopeful contributor to occur, then moving on without relating to what was said or acknowledging the input.
Non-acknowledgment: Not talking to anyone in particular or not acknowledging the presence of individuals.
Non-connection: Holding back any emotion, praise, or recognition, however subtly recognizing and praising own contributions.
Non-belonging: I am not one of you: Behaving entitled and feeling superior, expecting special treatment.
It is quite apparent that feelings of comfort and belonging, and trust are rare in such interactions. Therefore, things do not get resolved. Ideas for solutions shrivel and die. People check out.
If this keeps happening, it becomes the organization's culture, and interactions become more or less about going through the motions—what a waste, indeed.
But why is this happening?
Because we don't want to feel bad at any cost, we don't have the maturity or tools to deal with our emotions' impact, so we keep ourselves shielded and in our comfort zones because we fear them. Emotional maturity comes through taking a deep breath and facing the feelings. There is no other option. Luckily, there are many ways we can get support for dealing with old and new emotions. The rewards for this courage are exponential.
In case of interest, here is how I see the process of becoming more emotionally available:
A great tool is meditation or just sitting still with your feelings and practice feeling them and letting them move through you—best after the fact. During the episode, encapsulate the event and set it to the side without involving others. Regularly take some quality time to feel. That's it.
With some practice, the first thing that happens is that your mind becomes empty and light. Thought patterns will change, and endless thought re-runs will disappear.
Later on, you will feel stuck feelings in your body move through you more quickly. You will feel more relaxed, lighter, and grounded. Instincts and intuition will develop, and inspiration will come in more readily.
The end destination of this repeated exercise is to rest your attention without resistance in your heart area, the source of wisdom, and higher conscience.
While all relationships will improve, you will also truly become an extraordinary leader since not many will follow suit. You will be one of a kind.
The mind, especially the highly intelligent and intellectual mind, left unchecked is like a cruise missile, focused, destructive, and potentially misdirected. We need to keep it in check, and this is how.
Image: Luca Nardone from Pexels