I’m often asked what I consider to be the single most important leadership skill. Undoubtedly, my answer is emotional intelligence—being able to understand and regulate your own emotions and decode and positively influence the emotions of those around you. I write a lot about aspects of emotional intelligence, but it always feels like there’s more ground to cover. So, when Liz Fosslien contacted me and suggested an interview, I knew it would be a great fit.
Liz is the author and illustrator of the best-selling books Big Feelings and No Hard Feelings and an expert on emotions at work. She regularly speaks at Fortune 500 companies and has been featured by Good Morning America, The Economist, TED, The New York Times, and NPR. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and six-month-old son. In a very unexpected twist, we discovered during the interview that we both attended the same very small, quirky middle school in suburban Chicago. The world is a small place, my friends!
JW: The big message in your books is that it's okay—and actually really important—to experience and demonstrate emotions in the workplace. What advice do you have for women who have been told that being a “professional” is inconsistent with showing emotions?
LF: I speak to many women around fears of being seen as “hysterical”, or “overemotional”, or “aggressive”. And research shows—especially since the pandemic hit—that people are looking for leaders that they connect with and who care about them personally. This is an important message for men to receive too, because they also are told not to show emotion, just in maybe a different way than women.
Women are socialized to be friendly and kind, and I would say you should do that at work. It's a good thing to be kind to the people that you're working with! Some safe behaviors to lean into are praise and excitement. And then the tip that I would give is to balance sharing—which earns trust—with oversharing—which can destroy it. In other words, flag your feelings without becoming “emotionally leaky.”
Let's say that you were up all night, your kids were screaming, you sat in traffic, you're having a horrible day. Your team is going to notice that you're a little flustered or frustrated. And if you don't say anything—if you pretend you're totally fine—they will assume that it's their fault, or that there's something wrong with their performance, or there's something that you know about the organization that you're keeping from them.
So it's valuable to say, “I had a bad morning, I'm going to have my cup of coffee. It has nothing to do with you.” And I think that's a nice way of flagging your feelings and making your team feel safe and comfortable around you without overburdening them.
JW: We try hard to avoid negative emotions like regret, envy and anxiety, but you suggest that these emotions are important messengers. How can we listen to what these emotions are trying to tell us?
LF: I don't believe in “bad” or “good” emotions. They're just responses to stimuli, and it's actually really useful to sit with them and explore what they're trying to tell you. For example, if we never experienced regret, we would make the same mistake over and over and over again, and that would be unhelpful. So I think the first thing is just to give yourself permission to feel them and realize that experiencing them doesn't make you a bad person or make you weak. And then just ask yourself, “What is driving this?”
I have a six-month-old, and when I went back to work after leave, I asked myself, “What did I regret when it came to maternity leave?" And I regret that I tried to do way too much too quickly and didn't just give myself time to recover and enjoy having this little bundle of craziness. And so, I feel like if I have another child, it's useful for me to have written that down as a reminder of, “You don't want to do this again.”
And with envy in particular—especially if it’s towards another woman—I think women are socialized to not think about because it feels bad. It feels like, “I'm trying to tear this woman down. I should be excited for another person.” But the truth is that the other woman has something that you value. So listen to that.
This is how I found one of my favorite work mentors. She was really good at giving presentations and managing meetings, and I was jealous of how much people loved being in her meetings. And so I listened to that and then said to her, “Can you walk me through what you do or your approach to managing people and to organizing these amazing experiences?” And it improved my own relationships with my team. If I hadn't listened to it, I think I would've just sort of festered in this emotion I was trying not to have.
JW: You suggest using a phrase that I love. When faced with uncertainty, instead of telling yourself you can't do something, tell yourself “I'm a person learning to__.” You even encourage leaders to share this statement with their teams, and I can see a clear application to parenting as well. Tell us more about this exercise.
LF: Women leaders often put so much pressure on ourselves to have everything right the first time. I think about myself and how I managed the transition to remote work in 2020. I'd never been remote. I'd never managed remotely. I'd obviously never lived through a global pandemic! And I just showed up like a robot to those meetings, because I thought that I needed to have everything together to be a good manager or just to be a good colleague.
Then I came across this phrase while researching for Big Feelings, and I shifted instead to, “I'm a person learning to be a manager, in a remote setting, while going through a global pandemic and being terrified for myself.” And that helped me switch to a growth mindset and I came to meetings saying, “I don't really know what I'm doing. I'm going to try these things. I'm working to research what's going to work for our team. You guys need to tell me what's working, what's not.” And that was much, much more effective in helping us come together as a team.
From a motherhood standpoint, I was never someone who knew that I wanted to be a mom. I was always a little concerned about what having a child would do to my life. And I really did not like being pregnant. And so that phrase helped me reframe my experience as “I'm a person learning to be pregnant.” As opposed to being like, “I'm failing at this. I'm not doing it. I'm not enjoying the experience.” It was like, “No, this is a hard thing. I'm learning to get through it.”
JW: One of the things I love most about your books is how you distill really complex concepts into very simple and accessible illustrations. Tell us a little about your process.
LF: I always like to share that I do not have a design or illustration background. I studied economics and math. I taught myself to draw in MS Paint and PowerPoint because that's what I was familiar with.
But I think a lot of it is because my parents are immigrants, and they're incredibly emotionally repressed. I was not used to talking a lot about emotions or acknowledging that I had them until I was in my mid 20s. And so I think the illustrations are a really magical way of sharing something that's deeply personal, but still I'm not revealing that much.
JW: You've become a mom since writing your books. How has motherhood changed, amplified, or added nuance to the topics you've written about?
LF: I would say, very similar to what you talk about in your newsletter, is that so many of these lessons are applicable to motherhood. For example, my son is 6-months-old, so I'm still doing anything for a giggle or smile. So as I was singing “If You’re Happy And You Know It”, I was like “Well, you don't always have to be happy.” So now I’m like “If you’re sad and you know it, you can cry” or “If you’re anxious and you know it, that’s ok”. We have all these different emotions and I’m trying to normalize them for him.
So I try to think about the messages that we’re given from childhood that shape how we feel we can show up later. And I’m trying to do something different with my son. I think a lot about having a white male baby and what I want him to be later on in the world.
Favorite book to read with your son… All the Wonderful Things you Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin. The first time I read it, I just started bawling.
Favorite place… I think just home. My parents are immigrants, and we were the only ones in the US. They had me when they were older, and I'm an only child. So having a family was always really important to me because I had a lot of anxiety around being alone once my parents died. And so, I actually don't care that much about travel. I just want to have a home that feels like I'm surrounded by people I love, and—no matter what happens—that is my place that I can always come back to.
What keeps you grounded when you're having “big feelings”?… Having a kid! I think, one of the unexpected benefits of motherhood, is the perspective that comes with it. If this email goes out on Monday or Tuesday, it's not the end of the world.
And then also just seeing a baby cry when they're overtired, I think it's like, “Oh, I'm just a bigger baby.” It's not that these are weird feelings, it's just that I'm a human who also cries when she's overtired, so whatever. It's fine.
Favorite piece of advice you've received about working motherhood?… I think just realizing that these are all stages of life. I have a tendency to be like, “This is going to go on forever.” And instead being like, “Yeah, you only have a little kid for so long, and just kind of chill out and enjoy the highs and the lows.”
Oh, and also accept all the help that you can! Don't feel like you need to do it all on your own. You're just a way better mom if you let people help you.
Really like the graphics, they pack a punch. The interview is excellent as well.
I'm so grateful for this interview. Thanks for sharing, Jessica and Liz. One of the things that was hard for me after returning to work (reluctantly) after the birth of my second child was all of the emotions that came along with it. It was very difficult to navigate my feelings so publicly because of the expectation to immediately perform at the same levels. The way you framed these emotions is very helpful as I continue to work through a lot of regret and resentment from the past year back in the office.