How Wearing Your Emotions on Your Sleeve Impacts Leadership

Many business leaders still believe that emotions have no place in decision-making and other executive functions. I disagree, as do many others judging by the wealth of recent articles about emotional intelligence, particularly in the context of helping employees cope with COVID-driven changes. However, wearing your emotions on your sleeve can be a double-edged sword for leaders. Emotions are vital, but we need to wield the sword strategically.

Emotions are Pivotal to Decision-Making

Let’s first dispense with the notion that emotions should be left out of decision-making. Antonio Damasio is a professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He argues that

emotions don’t counteract logic, but instead play an essential role in human perception and decision-making

Damasio, A (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. Penguin, New York

When I ask a group of executives if their decisions are rational or emotional, they always say that decisions are rational. That is when I start quoting Damasio. “When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture,” he writes, “reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.”

We simply aren’t wired to separate reason and emotion in our thinking process, even if we want to believe we always make rational, objective decisions. Emotions date back to basic survival in our earliest ancestors. Fear or discomfort were strong motivators and kept people alive in a challenging environment. Our culture today tends to prize reason, at least since René Descartes equated thinking with existence (“I think, therefore I am”). Think a step further, and you’ll see what Damasio saw: I am much more than thought, much more than reason alone. In fact, Damasio’s book is titled Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.

Start with Transparency and Communication

What goes on in our heads isn’t always apparent or evident to us, with dynamics at both the conscious and unconscious levels. As Run DMC says, “It’s tricky.” How can we sort things out? In my book The Power of Company Culture: How Any Business Can Build a Culture that Improves Productivity, Performance, and Profits (Dyer, 2018),

I assert that the best strategy in this confusing human experience is transparency.

The Power of Company Culture (Dyer, 2018)

The more high-quality information leaders and employees have and share, the more they can trust their gut responses.

As Damasio counsels, “Intuition favors the prepared mind.” That is, good conclusions stem from possessing enough relevant information, and poor choices can arise from limited information. That means we need to communicate clearly and openly at all levels of the organization. But the communication shouldn’t be limited to hard facts and data. We also need to communicate our emotions—albeit responsibly.

Leverage Emotional Intelligence

According to Stéphane Côté, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and HR Management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management,

there are (at least) two types of emotions that impact decision-making.

Côté, S (2014) Incidental vs. Integral: Understanding Your Emotions

If you are not familiar with the theory of emotional intelligence, go read my analysis on Emotional Intelligence here.

Integral Emotions

Integral emotions are the direct result of decision-making, such as the anxiety you might experience when wondering if the decision will result in negative results.

Incidental Emotions

Incidental emotions have nothing to do with the decision; that is, if I had a frustrating experience while commuting, that frustration may linger in the background, without my conscious awareness, during the decision-making process. Positive incidental emotions also can affect decision-making. Feeling happy about a new relationship may make a risky choice look safe.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Develop your EQ to manage both incidental and integral emotions. The relevant EQ skill here is being aware of your own emotions. Training can also help you better integrate your emotions with your rational thought processes. You can use your self-awareness to prevent incidental emotions from driving poor decisions.

Don’t Dump

Wearing your emotions on your sleeve has it’s pitfalls. Losing your temper, blaming or reprimanding someone publicly, or even just showing up for work with a dark cloud over your head, can send the wrong message and cause a ripple effect of negativity and resentment. Still, you are allowed to be human. In fact, employees will respond more positively to an open, authentic approach. According to McKinsey & Company, employees and human resources leaders express a strong desire for more humanity in our increasingly process-dominated workplaces.

One way to turn negative situations into positive ones is to celebrate mistakes, turning them into opportunities to learn. By mistakes, I mean negative results that happen despite best intentions and planning. In contrast, errors result from carelessness. You shouldn’t lose your temper over either one, but

by celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn, you can model responsible emotional management.

You and your team can express frustration and disappointment at first but then focus on the positive learning aspect. Be sure to admit and celebrate your own mistakes, too. This shows you’re not afraid to admit when you’re wrong and learn from it.

Don’t Miss Opportunities for Positivity

As leaders, we can get so caught up in competing priorities and problem-solving that we can forget to stop to celebrate successes, milestones, and special occasions. It’s important to be positive about mistakes, but these occasions are tailor-made for promoting positivity.

When you celebrate success, you focus on what is working, and you have the chance to show your people what makes you happy.

Recognizing career milestones along with birthdays and other occasions gives you the opportunity to wear your emotions on your sleeve and give employees positive recognition.

Show Vulnerability with Caution

Wearing your emotions on your sleeve requires that you use emotional intelligence constantly, and not being self aware could upset people or lead to awkwardness. Strong EQ should also mean you are able to recognize the emotions of others. This will help you gauge how vulnerable you should or shouldn’t appear to your team. If your team is strong, positive, and confident, showing vulnerability can help you connect with employees on a more human level. However, if your team or an individual team member is struggling, you need to put yourself aside and help them. Think of Simon Sinek’s advice in Leaders Eat Last.

Deal with the needs of your people first, and, when the confidence is strong, share your vulnerabilities.

Sinek, S (2014) Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and some don’t. Penguin Books, New York, NY

Monitoring KPIs and gathering data are essential to good decisions. But hard data is interpreted and decisions are made by our minds, not machines. If you cling to the idea that we can be 100% objective and rational in every decision, consider giving yourself permission to be human. Develop the ability to understand your own and others’ emotions so you can take advantage of them for richer, more effective decision-making. As a leader, wearing your emotions on your sleeve can lead to success. But only if you develop strong emotional intelligence, otherwise you could risk sending the wrong message across.


Damasio, A (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. Penguin, New York

Côté, S (2014) Incidental vs. Integral: Understanding Your Emotions. Rotman Management Magazine. Available from:,can%20actually%20be%20pretty%20useful. [last accessed June 8, 2022]

Khan, T; Komm, A; Maor; D & Pollner, F (2021) ‘Back to human’: Why HR leaders want to focus on people again. Available from: [Last accessed June 11, 2022]

Sinek, S (2014) Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and some don’t. Penguin Books, New York, NY