Why Leaders Should Embrace Emotional Complexity

Here’s why a “good vibes only” approach won’t help you navigate times of change.

Mixed Emotions

Is happiness a leader’s job? For some leaders, it’s not just in their job description but in their title itself. Over the past decade, numerous companies hired "Chief Happiness Officers.” And some CEOs, such as Zappos's Tony Hseih, came to pride themselves on "Delivering Happiness." For many leaders, happiness emerged as a key measure of their success, just some countries have begun to prioritize Gross National Happiness (GNH) in addition to Gross National Product (GNP).

And then, the coronavirus global pandemic set in. Now these same leaders are having to adapt to the new demands of an altered reality. Many followers are looking to their leaders not as models of happiness but as sources of stability and meaning. Fortunately, recent research can help with this paradigm shift. Studies suggest that a narrow focus on happiness is misguided—and that embracing emotional complexity offers a better way forward, especially in times of change.

When the Pursuit of Happiness Backfires

The pursuit of happiness backfires especially when it becomes a narrow, single-minded pursuit. As paradoxical as it sounds, we often value happiness too highly—so much so that we become more unhappy. A team of psychologists at the University of Denver found that study participants who valued happiness very highly found themselves disappointed, even when they encountered good things in life. These participants were so focused on experiencing the "correct" (positive) emotions that they failed to fully appreciate the good that was right in front of them.

The pursuit of happiness also has a destructive flip side that reveals itself when we choose to avoid or suppress negative emotions in the belief that they are too unpleasant or unhelpful. A different team of psychologists at the University of Toronto and UC Berkeley found that habitually accepting your emotions rather than judging them has an important impact on your mental health. It helps you cope with stressors and avoid ruminating on your negative emotions and thereby making them worse.

This has led some researchers to propose the concept of "emodiversity" arguing that we should cultivate it in the "emotional ecosystem" just as we would cultivate biodiversity in an ecosystem in nature.

In the end, a culture of "good vibes only" can take an even darker turn when it causes leaders to silence or ignore "bad news" and important concerns because they involve negative feelings.

Put it in practice

If it doesn't make sense to try to push happiness onto an unwilling audience, what does make sense?

Value complexity.

Some leaders think they need to project certainty, dependability, competence, and control, and that the only way to do that is by projecting steady emotions. However, researchers find that employees stand to benefit more from leaders that embrace emotional complexity. Naomi B. Rothman and Shimul Melwani find that mixed emotions, feelings of ambivalence, and flux in a leader's emotional state signal flexibility and help followers navigate times of change.

Focus on meaning rather than happiness.

There's nothing wrong with hoping to be happy and hoping your followers are happy as well. But as the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl once put it, happiness "cannot be pursued; it must ensue." What you can more readily pursue (and encourage others to pursue) is meaning. While as psychologist Roy Baumeister points out "Being happy is not the same thing as finding life meaningful," it is often a necessary component. "Few people," Baumeister writes, "manage to be happy if their lives are empty and pointless."

Embrace the struggle.

One of the most puzzling findings of psychologists is that we often undermine our own happiness by engaging in what's easy and comfortable—such as relaxing or watching TV—when, in fact, we derive more happiness from active, challenging pursuits. In the end, it appears that ancient thinkers like Aristotle were right in suggesting that true happiness or flourishing isn't really about feeling good. It is a matter of being good and doing good as well.

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