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Emotional Labor

The Emotional Labor Required to Lead Effectively

How leaders can lead successfully when they are struggling.

Key points

  • One of the top drains leaders experience is acting in ways that don’t necessarily reflect how they feel.
  • Leaders use emotional labor to alter their emotional expression through surface acting and deep-level acting.
  • By becoming aware of this drain, leaders can learn how to support themselves to lead successfully.

This post is part 2 of a series.

Collectively, we are facing a mental health crisis in the workplace. According to Gallup’s 2024 State of the Global Workplace report, workers are experiencing rising levels of stress, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and worry. Additionally, leaders have more negative daily experiences than nonleaders.

How does this impact leaders?

To lead successfully when struggling, leaders must show emotions that do not reflect how they feel, which in psychology is called “emotional labor.” Emotional labor is a continuous requirement for effective leadership in organizations.

In a recent study, I uncovered the top five drains to a CEO’s energy, which applies to all leaders. Through a series of five posts, I’m exploring what’s behind each drain and how leaders can overcome them to lead at their best. My first post focused on the number one drain, feeling a loss of control over their day and schedule.

This second post will focus on the drain of emotional labor in leadership and how leaders can support themselves.

When leaders choose to display different emotions than how they feel in service of their goals and to keep motivation high, it can be incredibly draining. It takes energy for leaders who are struggling to lead from a place of hope, inspiration, and positivity. Unfortunately, we often don’t consider this disconnect.

To illustrate this concept, reflect on an incredibly challenging time in your life. Think about the emotions you portrayed to the world versus the emotions you felt inside. Usually, in those times, the two are different.

Leaders use emotional labor to alter their emotional expression in two ways:

  • Surface acting: changing the emotions they are expressing without trying to feel those emotions
  • Deep-level acting: when leaders attempt to feel the emotions they want to display

Here is an example of the difference between them when a leader is struggling. With surface acting, a leader would show up at a team meeting feeling horrible but suppress their feelings, pretending to be OK to motivate their team.

With deep-level acting, before the meeting, the leader spends a few minutes acknowledging their difficult feelings and then reflecting on what they are grateful for about their team and workplace. They would lead the meeting with genuine increased positivity.

Though surface-level acting can be necessary in the short term, it has the greatest negative impact on a leader’s energy resources and well-being.

How can leaders lead effectively while dealing with increased negative experiences?

Leaders must learn how they can support expressing their emotions through deep-level acting.

1. Show yourself self-compassion and kindness

The first step when facing difficult emotions is to be compassionate and kind to yourself.

Beating yourself up for having a difficult time is what is most harmful to yourself. Research has shown it is the judgment that causes us suffering. It creates a downward spiral: feeling terrible, judging yourself for feeling that way, and believing you are never going to come out of it.

Instead, it’s so important to be your best friend and be kind to yourself through these moments. Extend grace to yourself. Allow your difficult emotions to be there, reminding yourself that this is how you feel in this moment; it’s not your forever.

Reflection: What is one way that you can express kindness to yourself?

2. Give yourself the space to feel difficult emotions

Leaders need safe spaces to process their tough feelings.

There’s a tendency to use numbing strategies or suppress difficult emotions. The result is emotions staying stuck, creeping up, and coming out at inappropriate times. Emotions are energy in motion. They are meant to be felt so they can move through you.

Emotional Labor Essential Reads

You can create moments of stillness where you have the space to process your feelings instead of avoiding them.

Give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel, whatever that is.

Reflection: Be aware of what’s physically happening in your body. Name what you are feeling without judgment. Sit with it and allow it to be there: What’s here? What am I feeling?

3. Cultivate positive emotions

As our brains are wired for negativity, in challenging times, it’s easy to feel consumed by tough emotions. There is a balance between feeling and processing your feelings versus being consumed by them.

We can actively work against the negativity bias to find the bright spots. Promoting positivity gives us the strength and capacity to deal with the collective hard times we’re facing.

Intentionally notice and cultivate positive emotions for yourself including joy, gratitude, play, fun, happiness, and more. Actively seek moments to experience small amounts of positivity throughout your day.

Reflection: What cultivates positivity and joy in me? What are small experiences I can have throughout the day that will make a difference?

4. Build in time for connection during meetings

Structure meetings to build in time for genuine connection, which is energizing. This doesn’t mean asking a surface-level question, like "What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?" Instead, it’s an opportunity to connect on a deeper level and provide people the space to share how they are feeling.

If it’s a stressful moment, be thoughtful about how you approach connecting: “I know this is a really challenging time. How are each of you feeling coming into this meeting?”

Emphasize experiencing positive emotions. Ask questions such as "What’s one thing you are grateful for?" "What are your hopes for this meeting?" "What brought you joy recently?"

Reflection: How could I build in time for connection in an upcoming meeting?

There is a lack of awareness of how draining it is for leaders to act in ways that don’t necessarily reflect how they feel. It is especially significant during this time of collective hardship to recognize the impacts emotional labor has on our resources and how to best care for ourselves. Once leaders understand the energy it takes to lead when struggling, they can learn how to support themselves and their team to lead successfully.


Gallup. State of the Global Workplace. 2024.

Melinda Wenner Moyer. Lean Into Negative Emotions. It’s the Healthy Thing to Do. New York Times. April 21, 2023.

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