Amanda pulls into the parking lot spilling her coffee down her freshly pressed shirt. After dropping her kids off at daycare, she panics at the amount of time needed to get to her department’s staff meeting once she parks. She thinks to herself, “I cannot continue to work like this trying to anticipate what is going to happen this time.” She is hardly ever late, however when something goes wrong, the feeling of dread overcomes her regarding not knowing what mood her boss is going to be in on any given day. It’s exhausting to anticipate these mood swings and this constant anxiety is impacting all areas of her life.

Have you ever experienced the emotionally un-predictable leader? This leader is sometimes approachable and in a good mood, and at other times, like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.

This type of leader is also called moody, abrasive, dismissive, unapproachable, or disrespectable and is often the result of a person who gets promoted into people management with low emotional and social intelligence.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to be in control and use one’s emotions for the benefit and the advancement of self and others. It is the ability to wield emotions on purpose to achieve goals while simultaneously establishing healthy relationships.

EQ is a noun but it can also be a verb as in “I have been EQ’ed because of that experience.” I am often EQ’ed by my own teenagers as they go through their brain development stages, my own mirrored neurons experiencing the impact of their emotional un-predictability. Parents of teens, it is normal biology to feel a little crazy and I have often wielded my emotions with them to influence them to do what I think is good for them. Rationalization with a teenager is often futile.

Leaders (and parents) with high emotional intelligence are often experienced as collaborative, empathetic, supportive and skilled in the development of the humans in their charge by trusting them to make mistakes for the sake of learning and growth (without taking it personally). People who work with the emotionally stable leader experience higher engagement and performance because they know what to expect, feel safe, and can act confidently to make better decisions.  A recent study by Google showed that physiological safety was a characteristic of many of their high performing work teams.

When a leader is emotionally unintelligent, the impact on the work environment is hostile, and the stress chemicals generated by the team to cope with this kind of leader impacts performance and well-being. Work is no longer fun – stressed-out cortisol-ridden mirrored neurons get passed among team members like a cancer within the system. Like parenting a teen, people can feel crazy. Collaboration suffers. The emotionally unintelligent leader can be completely unware of their impact. Emotional outbursts can be caused by a lack of self-regulation skills or the neurological addiction (patterns) of moving to anger or hostility out of habit when something goes sideways. The presentation of this behavior appears very narcissistic.

How do you know if you are an emotionally predictable leader?

Ask yourself:

  1. Does your team hide things from you and you find out about problems after they happen?
  2. In your team meetings, do only a few members participate equally?
  3. Do your employees avoid dropping by to chat even though you have an “open door” policy?
  4. Does everyone on your team take advantage of the telework option?
  5. How is your turnover compared to other leaders in your organization? Do you know if you are the leader others want to work for?

If you have concern about any of these “symptoms” not to worry, a good coach can diagnose and offer practical tools you can practice turning your unpredictable to predicable.  If coaching is intimidating to you, the book What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith is another good place to start repairing any damaged relationships at work.

If you are a direct report to the emotionally unintelligent leader, here are some tips you can practice reducing your cortisol and increasing your dopamine at work.

  1. Practice detachment – I started reading Pema Chodron when I was working with an unstable leader – I love the Buddhist practice of not taking anything personally and detaching from the situation as if I were watching a movie. These outbursts are more about the person and their capacity than about you. Use this opportunity to boost your own emotional intelligence by getting centered, breathing and seeing the bigger picture.
  1. See this leader as damaged but lovable – Hurt people hurt people. I had a coach that once suggested I see my boss in a hospital gown; a person who was probably traumatized as a child. Believe it or not, it helped me reframe the context of where they were standing from and how they see the world. Emotional intelligence is learned and fostered in childhood; some leaders have to learn these skills later in adulthood.
  1. Practice the process of networking and interviewing for your next move – whether you decide to leave your current position because of the lack of safety, getting your resume together and practicing interviewing can go a long way at boosting your self-esteem and self-worth. Your sense of worth can be impacted when under the abrasive leader – taking a step back and realizing you have choices, goes a long way in finding power over your situation.
  1. Build emotional support – it helps to talk to a trusted advisor when you feel unsafe at work. Rather than using your peers for this support, which can spread negativity to others, I suggest using your employee assistance program or a supportive peer in another workgroup. Gallup has done extensive research about social embeddedness with the employee engagement question “I have a best friend at work” with improving retention and emotional stability. Increasing oxytocin (the bonding hormone) is a great way to reduce anxiety at work with others you trust.
  1. Wait them out – You are going to have good bosses, and bad bosses – and ironically, the bad ones have always advanced my career more than the good ones. Hopefully, the emotionally unstable leader will get removed, or in some cases, promoted!! We have all seen that phenomenon!! Know that the universe has a way of getting you unstuck when you focus on your own emotional intelligence and positivity. Patience, calm and peace are all traits of the emotionally intelligent when we know change is constant and our situations are in constant motion. AND know your limit. I never recommend people stay in negative situations for too long. Life is too short!!

I am forever grateful for the leaders who tapped into my potential and were my greatest advocate, creating a safe space for risk, creativity and innovation. I have had AMAZINGLY emotionally intelligent role models over my 33-year corporate career.

I am also a stronger leader because of the emotionally unstable. I had the opportunity to practice getting my voice in the room, setting healthy boundaries, advocating for myself and others – and forgiving myself when I have emotionally “lost it” as a parent or professional.  Whether we are leading others or parenting children, our emotionally capacities will always be a work in progress.