April 10, 2023
How can the science of emotion empower us as school leaders?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~Dr. Maya Angelou
Who was a teacher or coach who made you feel seen and known?
When I quietly reflect upon this question, I’m lucky enough to recall a kaleidoscope of faces from my childhood growing up in Madison, New Jersey and Annapolis, Maryland. Mrs. Carl, Mr. White, Miss Luckman, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Ebbe, Mr. Pasquale, Mrs. Mallen, and Mr. Johnston… I’m even luckier that I was afforded the opportunity to experience similar feelings of care and connection as an adult learner, in my graduate school experiences with my professors Drs. Cannon, Doyle, and Quinn-Trank. These are some of my superheroes, and a large part of the reason I’ve dedicated my professional life to working in school communities. These people made me feel seen. They made me feel valued when it mattered most. They filled my sails with essential winds along my educational journey.
As I’ve inhabited more schools throughout my lifetime, as both teacher and student, I’ve come to reimagine the schoolhouse and each classroom within it as spaces that are overflowing with feelings. Like a steady river current, there are the emotions we individually bring into our schools on any given day, and the emotions we collectively generate with others. These powerful forces are quietly influencing moments both large and small for the people within our school communities—from the subtle passing interaction in the cafeteria line to the nail-biting final seconds in the fourth quarter. Moreover, the way our students and colleagues feel when they are at school has significant implications for school sustainability. Decisions to re-enroll, renew an employment agreement, refer other families to the school, and volunteer time are all correlated with the degree of feelings of satisfaction about the school. The majority of psychological scientists now assume “that emotions are, for better or worse, the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life” (Keltner & Lerner 2015).
It wasn’t until more recently in my career that I began to wonder about how independent school leaders might effectively harness the science behind our feelings to positively shape the climates within our schools. If these forces we call feelings are ever present and universally experienced, what can the research teach us about our own interactions with this energy? More importantly, at a time during which our school communities have evolved into critical caretaking vessels within the broader culture, what must school leaders understand about the science of emotion to lead effectively? Armed with this knowledge, how can independent school professionals facilitate environments which support educational philosopher Dr. Nel Noddings’ (1999) theory of schools as prospective epicenters of “caring relations and encounters”?
Becoming an Emotion Scientist
Psychologists and neuroscientists have been unpacking the phenomenology of emotions in a myriad of ways over the past half-century, and a wellspring of research has substantiated the role which emotions play in contributing to the maintenance of our individual homeostatic balance and well-being. In 1990, Yale psychologists Salovey and Mayer significantly advanced emotions theory by postulating that human beings possess emotional intelligence: “a set of skills which contribute to the appraisal and expression of emotion in oneself and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan and achieve in one’s life.” This identification of the powerful intersection of cognition and emotion soon found its way into the domain of leadership theory and has been an ongoing subject of significant consideration given the demand for high-quality leadership in an increasingly complex world. As leaders, it is important to develop an awareness of the specific skills of emotional intelligence and then to get curious about how to animate and refine these skills in useful ways. Psychology scholar Dr. Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence describes this practice as that of an emotion scientist:
“Emotion scientists are curious, inquisitive, and analytical. They are active listeners and focus on facts. They ask people how they’re feeling and really want to know. They listen well and pay careful attention to others’ words and actions. They think long and hard about their own emotions too, always seeking to better understand their own emotional lives. They attempt and evaluate different ways of handling their emotions through trial and error” (Brackett, 2020).
As leaders, these practices require us to gaze inward, and dedicate time to identifying how we truly feel in our own emotional states of being, as we engage in the formal and informal interactions which comprise a typical school week. A true appetite for enhanced emotional intelligence also demands that leaders cultivate a heightened sensitivity about the external landscape of emotions within the school community, by creating space in our daily lives to notice the ways in which others are communicating how they feel. This includes engagement with uncomfortable emotions such as frustration, anger, or resentment. These emotions are like beacons—they serve as a signal that something needs our attention. Rather than choosing to ignore negative feelings or suppress them, leaders can use these feelings as data and engage with them in a way that helps to diagnose the situation and explore what is needed to find an effective pathway forward.
The Tools of the Trade: Emotionally Intelligent Leadership
Salovey and Mayer (1990, 1997, 2002) identified four skills of emotional intelligence that are the bedrock for leading effectively: emotion perception, emotion facilitation, emotion understanding, and emotion regulation. Emotion perception involves accurately identifying emotions in oneself and others, while emotion facilitation refers to using emotions to facilitate thinking and shape outcomes. Emotion understanding involves interpreting the meaning(s) of emotions and understanding their connections to behaviors in oneself and others, and emotion regulation involves managing emotions to respond to environmental triggers appropriately and effectively.
So how do the facets of emotional intelligence show up in us as leaders? Like two sides of a coin, we can envision these behaviors being animated in our interactions with ourselves (self-awareness and self-management) and through our interactions with others (social awareness and relationship management). Harvard psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman (1995; 2000) offers the following probes to audit our personal and social competencies in emotionally intelligent leadership:
Personal competence (Self-Awareness/Self-Management):
- How do I relate to myself? What are my emotional strengths and weaknesses?
- How do others perceive me as a leader?
- How are my feelings helping or hindering me in my goals as a leader?
- Can I control my emotions?
- Am I behaving in ways that match my values?
- How do I handle unexpected changes or crises?
The critical impact of a leader’s self-awareness and self-management on team performance is well documented. A groundbreaking 2015 study by Dierdorff and Rubin found that teams with less self-aware leaders made worse decisions, engaged in less coordination, and showed less success in conflict management. When teams were populated with multiple members who possessed low self-awareness, the chances of team success were cut in half. Today’s independent school leaders cannot manage the vast complexities of the organization without the cooperation and coordination of teammates, and building one’s personal competence is an essential ingredient in this enterprise.
Social competence (Social Awareness/Relationship Management):
- How do I relate to others?
- Can I readily see and feel things from others’ perspectives?
- Can I read the room?
- Can I build trust with others and leverage that positively in my leadership?
- Can I coach and inspire others as a leader?
- Can I navigate conflict?
- Can I facilitate teaming and collaboration?
The ability to recognize and understand the moods of other people involves observing body language and facial expressions in an effort to respond appropriately. Leaders who are socially aware can accurately appraise the emotions of others and “read” situations appropriately. A leader’s ability to sense what other people are thinking and feeling promotes perspective-taking and enlivens the collective capacity for empathy. It can also fuel progress through the cultivation of trust and psychological safety, which are proven to enhance the motivation and performance of others (Edmonson, 2004; Caruso, 2010).
Impacting School Climate: Key Takeaways
Skill-building in emotional intelligence is no small task. The work begins with developing a working understanding of the science of emotions and extends with a personal commitment to cultivating one’s own awareness through reflective practice and perspective-taking, using probes such as the ones provided above. This foundation provides fertile soil for the growth of emotionally intelligent leadership skills and the affiliated behavior modifications, which ripple throughout the school environment, and its nested ecosystems. The evidence reveals certain characteristic byproducts of emotionally intelligent leadership, which underscore the relevance of developing these skills for today’s school leaders:
- High levels of emotional intelligence in a leader foster a climate in which information-sharing, loyalty, healthy risk-taking, and learning can flourish. (Caruso, 2010; Edmonson, 2004; Serrat, 2017)
- Emotionally intelligent leadership promotes psychologically safe climates in which leaders inspire team members to embrace error, deal with failure in a productive manner, and benefit from learning along the way. (Edmonson, 1999, 2002, 2004)
- Leaders have the greatest power to animate emotional contagion across teams and organizations, both positively and negatively. Management of one’s emotional contagion processes has a direct impact on leadership effectiveness and leadership outcomes. (Johnson, 2008; Tee, 2015; Sy, et. al. 2005)
Emotionally intelligent leadership is not a practice reserved for Heads of Schools and Board Chairs. Every adult within the school community has an opportunity to skill-build in this area with the assurance that each emotionally intelligent interaction and behavioral choice from classroom to classroom and department to department has the capacity to positively impact how our community members feel, individually and collectively. Our emotional lives belong to us. Recognizing this, and embracing the realization that as leaders we have the unique capacity to grow and skill-build our emotional cognition in ways that directly impact our schools really is a superpower, isn’t it?
*In the next article in this series, Dr. Grimes will explore key tools and practices for building your own capacity for emotionally intelligent leadership.
Dr. Carrie Grimes is an Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations and is the Director of the Independent School Leadership master’s program at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Her research focuses on social identity and community within independent school settings and adult professional learning environments. Prior to her appointment at Vanderbilt, Carrie served on the faculties at Johns Hopkins School of Education and the University of Maryland College of Education. Carrie spent 20 years in independent school leadership, including roles in administration, teaching, counseling, and institutional advancement in schools and programs in California and Maryland. Carrie holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Applied Psychology from New York University, and a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt.