Bring it in: emotional leadership and hugs are the new tools in company success

A panel that starts with a group hug takes a decidedly different tone than most of the panels at SXSW.

Before the Leading with Love: Future of Emotional Leadership panel began, The Drum’s Americas editor Doug Zanger, the moderator, had everyone stand and give the person next to them a hug.

The point of the slightly awkward exercise was to show something simple: Emotion is ok, even in business.

The session, while packed with good energy, wasn’t all touchy feely. It was tempered with realistic expectations of how emotions can impact employees. Emotional leadership is mostly a good thing, the panel concluded, but knowing your emotional boundaries as a leader and not overwhelming your employees with emotion can be a precarious tightrope walk.

Terry City, senior vice president at Dose, said that emotional leadership means having a sense of empathy, which means that some people can take advantage of your good nature and see caring as a weakness, but there are more advantages to having that empathy.

“You get to create an environment where people want to come to work, and when they see you they hug you, and that’s OK,” he said, adding that caring often leads to an uptick in productivity, which is better than leading through fear.

“Don’t be a dick,” was agency Omelet co-founder Ryan Fey’s bluntly brilliant statement. “Be cool to each other.”

While caring and empathy may be things you learned in kindergarten, many people lose that sense in the business world. Hugs and empathy, however, can go a long way.

A slide pointed out that a study by Penn State University found that people assigned to give or receive hugs five times a day over the course of four weeks ended up happier than the control group. In other words, never underestimate the power of touch.

Kristi VandenBosch, chief digital officer/SVP GM, Meredith Xcelerated Marketing, even stated that the notion of making people feel amazing is good for the brain. She cited the positive physiology of caring, hugging and generally being a good person and how that affects others. “We can rewire people,” she said, noting that she even made a Japanese businessman (a culture notorious for its staid, hug-shy reticence) into a hugger after a while.

“When did it become taboo to show emotion?” asked Fey. “Why would you treat your co-workers any different than you treat your friends or family? It’s amazing what you can do when you have a client who definitely doesn’t dig hugs, then zero in and go hug them. If you put sunshine and love on it, the transformation can be amazing.”

Zanger brought up a slide that showed the values of three distinct generations in the workforce: Millennials are looking for a sense of purpose, value honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty and social commitment. Gen Xers are tech savvy, seek a work-life balance, embrace diversity and like informality. Baby Boomers have a strong work ethic, a sense of dedication to job, are team oriented, workaholics, and want to feel valued and understood.

Knowing these values can help emotional leaders connect better with their employees, especially leaders trying to connect with their millennial counterparts.

City joined Buzzfeed a while back and worked with “24-year-old managers. I found myself embracing the things they value. I was twice as old, but they had something to offer me,” he said, citing their facility with technology.

Fey was more blunt: “Millennials piss me off. They’re faster. They think 17 steps ahead,” he said, noting that he has learned so much from the millennials he employs, with the caveat that he helps them both succeed and fail so they can learn and grow. “If you’re going to fail, let’s blaze it so it can be seen from space.”

Work culture was another huge topic. City saw plenty of conflict with the creatives vs engineer vs sales vs editorial way of working. His solution is to have empathy for everyone who do their jobs well and with hard work, no matter what the role.

“You have to massage those departments. Show them same amount of love you show your own department. I’ve always approached everyone the same,” he said.

“The idea is to facilitate, not just create a culture. At Omelet we have a ‘quality of life committee’,” Fey said, adding that the committee gets a budget and is able to come up with team-building ideas that have no boundaries. But he noted that building a culture isn’t just about giving people something hollow, like Taco Tuesdays or Hawaiian shirt Fridays. With culture, you have to let it breathe and become what it is.

“There’s a lot of crying in emotional agencies,” said VandenBosch. “You have to be OK with that. It’s OK to be incredibly vulnerable in work environment.”

City added that if people can come into a manager’s office and vent and cry, they’re doing your job of being an empathetic leader. It’s about wanting people to connect, which helps them grow and get ahead.

“Empathy is paramount. When you have empathy and show that, the person can move up the ranks and carry that with them,” said City.

“The key for the whole world is empathy. Empathy for other people’s condition is vitally important. Love is having empathy. We can all share feelings,” Fey added.

“Creating an empathetic culture at work requires finding a balance but it starts with the interview process,” said City. “Bring in people who embody what you embody. I’ve turned away many ‘rockstars” because they were an asshole. One person can disrupt everything. I take interview process very seriously,” he said.

There were quality takeaways from the session. Fey stated that there is no place for fear in creativity. “Fear is the killer of creativity.”

VandenBosch said that vulnerable leaders can make incredible leaders. “Do things that are uncomfortable, that are hard,” she said, adding that putting yourself in a vulnerable state to ask people how they’re doing and really listening to their answers might be exhausting but “it makes for a more emotionally connected leader.”

City said that being human unifies all demographics. “People really appreciate when you care. They will bend over backwards because you’ve been human to them.”

Zanger pointed out that leaders shouldn’t try to be heroes. “Ask for help if you need it.”

Having that sense of empathy, making connections and reaching out truly can make stronger leaders. To prove the point, VandenBosch was approached after the panel by someone she worked with years back who came up and called her a mentor, even though their encounters were brief. It was because VandenBosch made a human connection, truly cared and listened, and offered advice on how to get ahead, which her protégé took to heart and eventually succeeded in her career and life. Their meeting ended in a hug, of course.

The big life lesson: bring it in!