Emotional Literacy

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Those of you who were able to attend the MJ Future Forum North in Manchester on 6 December will have listened to Jon Houlihan, Local Government Practice Director and Jody Goldsworthy, Executive Director of Leadership & Talent Consultancy present our latest research findings and stressing the importance of focusing on emotions in leadership.


Our ongoing research and work within the sector focuses on deep psychological models of leadership.

As we collaborate with and assess pioneers of new partnerships and delivery models, it’s clear that success relies not just upon well-versed leadership skills – commercial thinking, strategic vision, collaboration etc, but on the less acknowledged ‘emotional literacy’ of leadership. Based upon neuroscience, emotional literacy contributes to some of the most important drivers of successful organisational change: trust, wellbeing, safety and resilience.

We help leadership teams and groups to address these drivers through our leadership programmes - one of the barriers to achieving change outcomes is failure of a leadership group to support the emotional, as well as rational aspects, of change. Within top teams, building trust and psychological safety not only drives top team performance but sets the right cultural tone for the rest of the organisation. In local partnerships too, getting the virtual team dynamic right will set a powerful baseline for achieving shared outcomes.


Strengths and weaknesses across the LG cohort of top leaders:

Our research defined 12 capabilities that differentiate outstanding leaders in this new world, from others under three foci – self, people and outcomes. These capabilities now underpin our executive assessment and leadership programmes through which we have subsequently profiled around 750 senior execs and officers in LG against this model, which has given us insight into the local government cohort against thousands of senior leadership profiles across the wider public sector.

Our research shows LG top leaders are strong in Driving Strategic Clarity, Tackle Tomorrow, Curiosity, Influence and Impact, but scored lower across capabilities such as Future-Proof Talent, Collaboration and Making Relationships Count.

GS regularly advises across LG, and other parts of the public sector on how investing in leadership can help change to stick.


Why worry about emotions?

It’s been well known in psychology for decades, now proven by modern insights from neuroscience, that our emotions come first. In terms of the neuroscience of the way we are wired, we have an emotional reaction nanoseconds before we think, and even longer, comparatively, before we react or behave.

In fast paced, relentless change, emotions will be underpinning our engagement, behaviours, mental health and the capacity and capability of our workforce. Leaders naturally anticipate how a shifting landscape will impact skills and roles, but less often pause to plan for the emotional disruption that can ensue. We address this in our work, unlocking conflict in an exec team or a decision hiatus in a board or an alliance that struggles to find common ground and deliver outcomes - any situation will always be unlockable through understanding and regulating emotions.


Psychological safety

The tech giant Google’s massive two-year study on team performance revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. 

Psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to breakthrough ideas about service innovation or a new endeavour.

Psychological safety is both fragile and vital to success in the kind of uncertain, interdependent environments you all work in.

The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, place-based partner or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centres.

This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning. Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds. When our emotions are aroused, the rational part of our brains are less effective. While that fight-or-flight reaction may save us in life-or-death situations, it handicaps the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace.


So how do we overcome this natural programming of our brains?

Part of it is learning techniques to regulate negative emotion, techniques we focus on in our leadership and coaching work. However, as importantly. modern workplace success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.

Positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humour increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can sustain the broaden-and-build mode. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behaviour. This is a huge factor in team success, as Google states:

“In Google’s fast-paced, highly demanding environment, our success hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers.”  


Our top tips:

  1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary
  2. Speak person to person
  3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves
  4. Replace blame with curiosity
  5. Educate key staff and leaders about mental health first aid 
  6. Adopt a learning mindset 
  7. Attend to team development - measure psychological safety


We believe that understanding and responding to our own and others’ emotions underpins our effectiveness as leaders to create the necessary culture and pace to pioneer new partnerships and ways of working. We must find ways for people, groups etc to understand their emotions and learn ways to emotionally regulate and engage in ways that suit them.

GatenbySanderson can provide a range of consulting and technology enhanced solutions to help support you in developing your leadership and teams. For more information contact Jody Goldsworthy at ltc@gatenbysanderson.com.