Tech Leader Chats: How to grow as a leader by developing emotional intelligence with Jason Wodicka

Title of talk with photo of speaker

Think of a leader you admire at work. They collaborate well with others, and everyone at the company jumps at the chance to join their team. You might wonder: How can I emulate their approach? What technical skills do I need to develop?

The answer may surprise you – one of the traits that distinguish exceptional leaders is their emotional intelligence (EI). A leader's emotional self-awareness is a key indicator of team climate: 92% of leaders strong in this key EI skill build high energy, high performance teams, while 78% of leaders weak in it produce a team with a negative climate (source). Despite the image of the hyper-rational engineer, we're still human. Our emotions are critical - and often hidden or dismissed in high-tech environments.

Learning to appropriately acknowledge and tap into our emotions in the workplace can be a great asset toward developing ourselves and our teams. In this #TechLeaderChat, we’ll talk about:

  • How to build your own emotional intelligence, whether you’re just starting or you're looking to deepen your skills in this area
  • How to assess key skills within the EI umbrella in yourself and others, and put them into action with intentionality
  • How to create more trusted 1:1 relationships as well as a more cohesive and productive team
  • How emotional skills create a path to grow your impact organization-wide, beyond your team, and be the type of leader that others aspire to become - even where you don't have direct authority
  • How to coach others on your team to develop their own EI, and ensure the entire team supports each other, even though people may be at different stages of their own journeys
  • How to manage the weight of holding others’s emotions, as it’s an essential component of emotionally aware leadership

About the speaker
With a career in the technology industry that spans nearly two decades, Jason Wodicka has successfully taken on several different roles. They've worked as a teacher, test engineer, development engineer, and staff software engineer for Amazon, Microsoft, University of Washington, and Karat. They are a global speaker on the topics of opening doors into the tech industry, building diverse communities, and positive tech leadership.

How to grow as a leader by developing emotional intelligence

See below for:

  • Key takeaways from the talk
  • The (partial) recording
  • A transcript of the talk
Key takeaways
3 elements of emotionally aware leadership

Emotional awareness

Emotional regulation

Emotional guidance 


See below for a recording of a section of the talk


Our cultural message that emotions aren't really thinking is really strong

Jason: When we recognize that the emotions there we are recording started. Uh, even if we recognize that the emotions of others are real and they're important, our cultural message that emotions aren't really thinking is really strong. And it can kind of lead to this double standard where we become open to the emotions of others, but we suppress and ignore our own. Um, and I'm going to admit this was me for at least a decade. Uh, but our own emotions are real. We can't avoid having them, but they're also the easiest emotions for us to be aware of. They are the only emotions that we can directly sense. And emotional self awareness also helps us to build the models for emotional awareness in others. We can't assume that other people feel like we do or react like we do, but we can still use the model of how we feel and react to gain some insight into how emotions interact with behavior.

Starting with emotional self awareness is challenging as a leader

Now, one of the things that is really challenging about starting with emotional self awareness is that I don't have a magic tool to give you. Um, I do have a magic piece of advice, but it's expensive and a lot of work, and it's therapy. Find, uh, yourself someone with whom you can have conversations about emotion, and ideally with as little power dynamic involved as possible, because your ability to talk with someone openly about the emotions you're experiencing, what they bring up, how you react to them, is a big piece of figuring out how you're going to work with emotions. As a leader, um, I wish I had something easier to give you than find yourself a therapist. Um, and I think going in, reading about other people's emotional journeys, doing many kinds of emotional work, um, I meditate. I find that that has been helpful for, again, emotional awareness. Any technique that you use to bring self awareness to your emotions without letting them drive you. The key here is you want to be aware of what emotions you're bringing into the situation without discounting or denying them and going, oh, those emotions, we got to get rid of them. Or saying, I'm having this emotion. That means this emotion is the truest thing ever, and I need to, uh, rewrite this whole situation in light of this emotion. Neither of those are useful ways to hold emotion. You need to acknowledge that the emotions you're feeling are real, that they're there, and that they're going to color your response, but that they're also not the only thing, and that they may not be the same emotions someone else is having. Once you've got to that place with your own emotions, you also need to look to it for others, and a few of the techniques I've got for looking at the emotional state of others. I mean, first of all, the first, most basic one that has had very good results for me, sounds almost too simple to say, but it is asking people what they are feeling and leaving space for privacy. When we solicit the emotional state of others, we give them room to say, hey, you may be having emotions about this. In your place. I, uh, might be having emotions about this. What are the emotions that are coming up and in that place? There's a few things we need to be aware of. The first one is that as leaders, there is almost always a power dynamic between us and the folks we're working with. Um, if I ask a random person in the cafe how they're feeling, there's no. I mean, aside from the weirdness that I may have just come up to a random person in a cafe and ask them how they're feeling, there's no expectation that that answer, what they tell me, might influence whether they have a job tomorrow. But when somebody's working with a person of higher seniority at work, and if you're in a leadership position, you're almost certainly of, uh, higher seniority, higher organizational chart status, you have power over them in kind of a, uh, work sense, and so they may want to constrain that answer. And so that can lead into creating situations where you normalize communicating emotional state. And the biggest thing here, the biggest technique that you can apply, is working on communicating your emotional state without creating obligation. So if I tell somebody on my team, I'm scared that this release isn't going to make it on time, the immediate response might be that this is a veiled attempt for me to tell them to work harder or to do something differently or in some way reassure my fear. And in some situations, it may be from some people. But the trick of communicating without creating obligation is to learn to say, hey, this release is coming in very close to the edge. I'm feeling nervous about that. I don't want to ask you to do anything differently. I don't need you to do anything differently.


I just want to acknowledge that I'm feeling nervous about that. So if it seems like I may be checking the schedule a lot and double checking things a lot, um, I have this fear. It is driving me right now. But it's not your fear. It's not your. That fear isn't yours to cause to go away. And often you need to be very explicit that you are not asking them to do something differently. Um, and manager voice is powerful. Um, when I first became a manager, one of the things I did was somebody asked me if our team could do something. And on my way to lunch, I asked one of my teammates who I had previously been, you know, I'd previously been his peer engineer, and I asked him, hey, matt, uh, what would it take for us to do this? And I went off to lunch, and I came back, uh, 2 hours later. I had lunch, and then I went to a meeting, and then I came back to the team area, and matt came up to me. He's like, okay, so if we stop doing all of these things and we drop everything and reconfigure our team to work like this, I think we could get it done within three weeks. And I'm like, oh, oh, no. Oh, no, oh, no. Because that hadn't been my intent. The question had literally just been, is this possible? And in my mind, it was. I really. That task feels like it isn't doable for our team. But Matt's the expert on that subsystem, not me. So I should ask Matt if he sees a way to do this that would be better, because what I see looks like we'd have to throw our. Everything else that our team's doing away, and then it would still take three weeks. But he had interpreted that as, uh, an instruction, not a request for information. And that was my first lesson with manager voice. And manager voice is especially strong in emotional contexts. So because of this, because our emotions as leaders are often going to get read in an outsized way, one of the things we need to learn to do is regulate our emotions. And I think this is the part a lot of people zero in on when we talk about managing with emotions. Uh, for one thing, we don't want people to have disruptive outbursts in the middle of work. We don't want people yelling at each other. Contrary to certain leaders we've seen in the past, throwing chairs at people is not an accepted business practice. Um, but for a lot of people's model of business, emotional regulation is both the beginning and the ending of the conversation. And it's mostly this individual task, regulate your emotions in the workplace or else. But that emotional regulation isn't even complete either, because people expect that if you tell an anecdote about your weekend, you're gonna get an emotional response. If you launch a product, there's gonna be some pride and some joy, miss a deadline, some frustration. The default emotional regulation isn't actually a fully regulated environment where nobody shows any emotions it's a script, and it's an unstated script, which makes it an extra challenge for those of us that don't just intuit the correct script from the subtle social cues. Now, this kind of old school emotional environment is not especially effective, and it tends to reflect the social norms of whatever the outside society is. So instead, emotionally aware leadership needs to take a different approach to emotional regulation.

Emotional work is the effort of regulating emotions in the workplace

On my next slide. Now, uh, based on a different model of emotions in the workplace. And that model begins with an understanding of emotional work. So now, emotional work is basically the effort of regulating emotions. And the best example I've seen of this is, uh, for those of you who have or have been around a very young child, uh, maybe someone who is just school age, uh, just going off to school for their first year in school, and you have just had the worst day. You have had nothing went right. People around you at work were yelling at you and being incredibly frustrating. Things were failing for no reason of your own, and you just had an incredibly frustrating, difficult day. And suddenly this child is coming home from school, and they're in tears because somebody said a mean name. And honestly, it's a really stupid mean name. You kind of want to laugh a little bit. It's like, in adult terms, this mean name doesn't even count, but they're absolutely gutted. And what do you do? You become. I mean, for most adults, you become supportive. You're like, it's okay. You show them that this doesn't have to ruin their day, even though your day is already pretty well ruined, and you are putting a lot of effort into not showing your own pre existing frustration and this other stuff and taking it out on this. This kid who is being very demanding of you, very needy, but who doesn't know better, who can't control it themselves. This is. I think most folks have had a situation like this, and this is a. A great way to feel what emotional work feels like. But I've got two things written up there. Emotional work and emotional labor. The difference is whether you're getting paid,


uh, emotional work. You just do. Emotional work is a measurement of the effort. Emotional labor is when emotional work gets baked into our jobs. And one of the problems of a lot of workplaces is that we have emotional labor entirely backwards. We generally place a ton of emotional labor onto line level employees and ask them to rigorously constrain their emotions and only show contextually appropriate emotions while allowing, at the upper levels of management, absolute emotional malfeasance. The chair throwing, the screaming, all of these things, these outbursts that would not be accepted in a, uh, school, let alone the boardroom, but they are accepted in the boardroom. So one of the things about emotional labor is figuring out who is doing it. And in general, one of the first techniques that you can do as an emotionally aware leader is to make sure that the direction of emotional labor corresponds to both power, influence, and money in your organization, that the folks who are earning more, the folks who have the power to change situations, are also the ones who are expected to do more of the emotional regulation. This means that sometimes an employee might show up who's angry at a perceived slight or perceived issue, whether or not that issue feels real. Um, I've seen a lot of places where folks where an angry employee is going to get treated very poorly, and the issue they have discounted, whereas an angry leader is going to get heaven and earth moved for them. So, you can strive to change this within your team. And one of the things that you can do is make sure that when you are communicating emotions to your team, you are putting in the emotional work, the emotional labor, if this is a work environment, to not have your emotions explode everywhere, all over your team, but instead to communicate to them that you have feelings, that your emotions are present, and that these are what they are, but not make them deal with helping you resolve them. Um, and this plays into, I think, one of the biggest ways I see this is, I think we've all met the boss who wants to be everybody's friend and who does not want to acknowledge that there is some difference between them and the folks who report to them. Uh, that there is no power differential, that there's no dynamic there. And that's a jerk move, because it's not like, that doesn't remove the power differential, and it doesn't remove the need to manage emotions in the relationship. It just means that the person with the most power is willfully refusing to do that work. So don't be that person. Be the person who's aware that you can't use your subordinates as therapy therapists. Um, you can't burden everybody around you with things, but that doesn't mean you need to clam up about your emotions. Because if you clam up about your emotions, that is you making everybody else around you also quiet about your emotions. You're communicating that emotions aren't to be talked about. So instead, you need to, in a controlled way, without placing expectations on the people around you, raise your emotions, and support the emotions of others. Uh, one of the things that I found very useful was in one on ones always. I always carried out one on ones behind a closed door. And I always said, whatever emotions you bring into the space, they're here. You can say anything you want to me. I will not carry it out of this space, and I will not tell your teammates about it. It's just you are free to have. If you're really frustrated about something, really p***** off about something, I won't judge you on that. We've all got emotions, and then we'll see what we can do to help with the situation that is underlying the emotions. But you don't need to pretend you're not angry or sad or frustrated. And this also comes in a lot when folks are talking about things outside work. The other thing that comes in here is space for folks to have bounded sharing, because we don't always want to share everything that's going on. Um, one of my coworkers, ah, at a previous role, had an extremely vivid example. Um, she talked about the inhumanity of a process that would have given her a lot of leave, but required her to discuss at an extremely emotionally vulnerable time that she had just miscarried. And there was no process for saying, I have just gone through something, and I don't want to tell you about it, I don't want to talk about it. So that thankfully related in the construction of some processes for a, uh, no questions asked leave policy, which I think was one of the, uh, better things I saw out of that particular HR department. But that is something that, again, that role of, sometimes you need to let folks know that simply saying there is an emotion here, but not necessarily


giving all the details, is all you can hope for. Um, I've got some other stories I could tell, but I want to be mindful of time.

Emotional guidance is the category of techniques that engage emotions of people

I'd like to move on to emotional guidance. Emotional guidance, once we have our own emotions, once we're aware of them, and we're aware of the emotions of the people around us, and we have this framework for talking about how we regulate them, which is not just clamping down on them, but also not just letting them do whatever they want, we can come to the place that I think many people get legitimately excited about, which is emotional guidance, because we have all seen leaders who inspire the people around them and create these environments where everybody around them feels motivated and capable. And emotional guidance is the category of techniques that we can use to engage these emotions of the people around us. And I say guidance rather than control, because I think a lot of people might be looking for some kind of a mind control ability, but it's not. All we can do is shape. We can shape where the water is going to flow. We can create situations that'll make some emotions easier to hold than others. We can't just put an emotion in somebody else's mind. And a couple of reasons to use this. One of them is de escalation is one of the most powerful emotional guidance techniques we use all the time. Because, in general, one of the signs that we've got a situation where we can't avoid emotions in the workplace or in some other, you know, task oriented situation is that an emotion has escalated to the point where it is unavoidable. So deescalation is a form of emotional guidance for saying, okay, we need to take the emotional expression in this situation and bring it back to a place where people can actually communicate with each other again, because usually we're de escalating from beyond a point of communicative utility. Um, but another technique for emotional guidance here, another reason to use it, is shared visioning. One of the other reasons, the kind of, the, almost the opposite of de escalation, is this is almost a form of escalation. This is saying, taking a group of people who have a shared interest and going from this shared interest to a shared vision, not just a idea of, we all want to work on something, but a feeling like this is a thing we all want to make progress on together. Like this set of people are, are interconnected in this task. So it's almost literally the opposite of de escalation. But again, it's useful if you look at what happened. Look at particularly many of, uh, the press conferences around, uh, apple in the, uh, 20 ish years ago, uh, you can see a lot of this, there's this emotional amplification going on. Um, and I'm a little bit hesitant to use press conferences as an example only because they're artificial. They're not what people naturally do, and they're not team interactions, that's media. But you can see the same when you get a group of people together, excited to do a task, when you've got a group of folks coming together to work on something, and a lead can get everybody excited to go out and make something happen. And, uh, it's not artificial. I mean, one of the things is you can sometimes see, you see, folks try to do these techniques a lot, and it comes off feeling very weird and cult like. But why do they do them? Because when these techniques are done correctly, authentically, from a place that, again, is first aware of the emotions already present in the room and then kind of guiding them together. They're very effective. There is a joke in one of the, uh, technical communities I'm in that we keep, you know, we have to keep saying, you know, we're not a cult because people will go out and, like, get the, uh, uh, open source project's logo tattooed on them, and two people have dogs named after it. And it's like, okay, that's not, that comes out of a real emotional amplification. People feeling emotionally invested in this thing they're working on together. That's an open source project, but any team can have that. If everybody, if there is something legitimate for everybody to work together towards. Um, one other use of emotional guidance is a lot of the time, remember, our emotional system is part of our thinking system, which means if you're looking at something and something seems off to you, emotional guidance can often help a more experienced person, help a, um, less experienced person. Dig into that. The number of times that I've used emotional guidance when working with, in my capacity as a staff engineer, working with somebody who's like, something about this code scares me. And sitting down with them and helping them say, okay, well, what about it? Is it. What's making you nervous here? And talking through, it's like, what do you want to do? What does this nervousness inspire you to do? What parts of this code are most scary? What are least scary that work with them in feeling into their emotions. That's super powerful.

If you are working a lot with emotional guidance, you can become toxic

All right, so I do have about two, uh, last things that I want to, uh, jump into here, which are the. There are two cautions I want to give you. One is that, uh, if you are working a lot with emotional guidance, you can start to feel like all emotions need to be positive, and this is toxic positivity. You need the negative emotions, the emotions that feel bad. Just like those fears about code are some of the most important ones for making sure a team is going to succeed. If all you're using emotional guidance for is to make everybody feel good in the moment, that's scary, that's dangerous, and you can also use it to paper over problems and not solve them any other way. You can make everybody feel like there's solution being made. But this needs to be, the emotional work you're doing needs to be part of holistic work toward actually solving the problems.

All right, so we've talked about a lot. Kind of like to open up for questions

All right, so we've talked about a lot. Um, I'm just taking a quick look through a collection of techniques here that I've also got, um, but, you know, I think at this point, I think I'd kind of like to open it up. Kind of like to open up for questions and, ah, if about techniques, anything that. And we can kind of go into, you know, things from my bag of tricks for solving some of these.

Vivek: Thank you so much, Jason. That was amazing. Um, people, feel free to just flick those questions through, um, on the chat. You, um, can send them directly to Kai as well, um, as they're managing the questions or. Yeah, feel free to take your mic off and ask any questions.

Jason: Oh, Lauren, absolutely. I don't remember where I first heard the phrase toxic positivity, but the moment I heard it, I recognized workplaces that I'd been in that were experiencing and like, oh, oh, that's what that was. Um, there's a sticker that somebody put on a lamppost near my home that says, uh, good vibes only kills people. And I'm just like, yeah, you need to be able to talk about what's bad in order to fix it.

Take us through an example of where toxic positivity came up

Vivek: Yeah, I mean, I'd love to ask us, like, an example, if you could just take us through an example of, like, where you saw that toxic positivity come up.

Jason: Um, absolutely.

Vivek: Um, and then how you, like, resolved it, I guess, as well. That would be really helpful. A specific example.

Jason: Okay. I did a situation where I've seen it and resolved it. Um, that might be hard.

Vivek: First bit.

Jason: Yeah. My best example of toxic positivity, I unfortunately did not resolve. Um, and that was a, uh, group of senior leaders who were extremely unhappy to hear anything negative and who pushed out a collection of extremely talented other leaders who kind of rose into the c suite but couldn't be positive enough at this particular organization. And so because of that, they, it went badly for the organization. They succumbed to problems that they not only should have seen coming, but had seen coming because some of these previous leaders had been telling them about them, but they've been saying it in a very, hey, we have a problem way. Instead of like, hey, we have an opportunity to solve this thing that maybe is not exactly. I can't even be that positive, but I. So unwillingness to hear the negative damaged that organization and caused some very foreseeable failures to have to get to catastrophe point before, uh, some of the executives were willing to tackle them.

Vivek: Yeah. Wow, great question. Uh, great, great answer. Um, there a comment there from the text as well? Yes, just, uh, conscious of time, so we might move to the small breakout rooms now.

There were a few issues with the recording and permissions, um

And so just before we do that, just want to thank Jason and Kai so much for the amazing presentation. There, uh, were a few issues with the recording and permissions, um, so we'll try and get as much of that resolved and sharing it with the community. Um, and we also would love to, ah, get your feedback, um, and join the discussion on slack, um, for those of you who can't stick around. But yeah, I guess next steps from here is we'll stop the recording. Um, Lauren, do you want to stop the recording?

Jason: Um, I think you need to, Vivek, because you're the host.

Vivek: Okay, sorry, it's.


Transcribed by

Vivek Katial
Vivek Katial
Lead Data Scientist
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