Building a safe and secure house requires both strong individual bricks and a firm foundation. Even if each brick is made of the strongest material, if the foundation is weak the house will collapse. Similar logic can apply to activism.

It's likely that a resilient activist will stick to protecting their cause despite opposition or failure. Ability to come up with new ideas and strategies when existing ones don't work, their determination and self-discipline are all qualities that make them effective at their work. However, no matter how resilient an individual is, if their organization can't withstand external pressure, any progress will end up being delayed or undone. A combination of individual traits and resilience is not enough - an organizational approach is required as well. Leaders must be able to listen to and understand the needs of their team, and provide the necessary help and direction. Creating a culture that supports emotion will support organizational and individual resilience.

Every activist faces a number of emotional challenges. Emotions are necessary for self-motivation and for inspiring others, as well as for building compassionate solutions and supporting those in need. Meanwhile, donors, funders, and other stakeholders are looking for reasonable, careful, and intellectual reasoning. In many cases, it can be difficult to convert the emotional motivation and energy of a starting point into charts or reports. It is difficult to quantify long-term human connections using only KPIs and budgets.

Over time the “rational-business-oriented focus” often transforms into a professional environment that values productivity and efficiency over the primary fuel for change-making: not being OK with injustice, anger about how things are, or enthusiasm for change. But emotions are an inevitable component of professional life in business, and they are absolutely crucial in activism. Understanding how to navigate emotions at work is vital for success, whether we're talking about team morale or individual connections.

In her book "Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts," Brené Brown quotes neuroscientist prof. Antonio Damasio: We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”

In the modern workplace, emotions play an important role in decision-making. As opposed to being a blind spot and underestimated factor, they are now considered a valuable resource.

Unfortunately, many leaders tend to shy away from them - often leading to teams' decreased motivation. While in normal times a lack of emotional connection with the leader can be overcome by strong team relationships and limiting contact with the leader, "times of crisis" require frequent and thoughtful communication in order to overcome chaos and emergent complexities. When it comes to making decisions on the fly, prioritizing, re-prioritizing, and maintaining the sense of still being a team, the burden falls on the shoulders of the leader. That’s where emotionally mature and professional leadership comes into play.

It is not only critical for leaders to be able to recognize and manage their own emotions, but also to be there for their team members in an effective and supportive way.

In their research, Myeong-Gu Seo and Michael Parke, professors at Maryland's School of Business and London School of Business, examined organizational climate — a common perception of the workplace based on its processes, structure, and culture — and the emotional behaviors that result from it. Among their findings is that employees who can express their feelings and moods perform better than those who are forced to suppress their emotions.

In organizations that encourage people to express their emotions openly and honestly, they are more likely to:

● Be collaborative: establishing solid relationships with colleagues

● Be productive: if a team is given the right resources, it can be productive

● Be creative: generate a larger number of new ideas in the team

● Be reliable: when under pressure, reliability allows you to avoid making mistakes or errors


Leaders have the power to make a difference in challenging situations by being emotionally available and knowledgeable about how their colleagues are feeling. By understanding this connection between emotions and professional skills, leaders can better support those in need of help during difficult times.

What does emotional literacy look like?

From emotional inaccessibility that can be summarized as:

I'm like a stone, I feel no emotions. I am a purely intellectual being. And by this you will recognize my professionalism.

Emotionally inaccessible leaders will not only reject their own emotions, but also perceive people who express emotions as weak and unreliable. During the workday, they will expect employees to leave their emotions at home. It is something we are used to from an organizational perspective, especially in organizations that are building their credibility through intellectual value like think-tanks or capacity building organizations.The essence of emotional maturity is being able to distinguish one's own emotions and reactions instead of being controlled by them, being able to take control. It is critical to acknowledge emotion, name it, and then decide what need lies behind it and what can be done to address it. It is important to consider that there are constructive and unconstructive ways to address them. As a practice and a skill, it requires training, and mistakes are inevitable. Whenever a human avoids confronting their emotions, the emotions take control invisibly. The result is uncontrollable outbursts or decisions that in the long run make little sense, but in the short run are the answer to one's discomfort with those invisible emotions.

Consequently, when the situation is challenging, it is best if the leader has some experience in working with their emotions. When we are faced with difficult conditions we tend to revert to habits that are easier, but less constructive.

As a result of years working in different NGO environments in various cultures, I have developed a typology for leaders acting in stressful situations, illustrating how they approach emotional issues in their activism and workplace settings:

● Emotional inaccessibility - not admitting to having any emotions and not accepting them in others

● Emotional illiteracy - led by a belief that emotions are by nature unpredictable, violent and when they overwhelm me it is the end of reason

● Emotional literacy - a skill of recognizing an emotional state, naming it, distinguishing the constructive and unconstructive solutions

● Emotional maturity - Everyday practice of feeling, thinking and deciding where can you put yourself and your team on the scale from inaccessibility to maturity? What kind of benefits and losses can you see in the situation you are at?

The above typology can be seen as a linear scale that charts the move from emotional inaccessibility to maturity. Such a scale can help you figure out where you stand on your emotional maturity journey. It can also give an idea of what an emotionally mature team would do in a given situation (e.g. a conflict in a team, burnout of team members, etc.)

In recent discussions about the development of emotional skills in the work environment, one more stage has been added to the typology- “emotional professionalism.” Activists are often, particularly in need of working on this emotional skill.

First it is important to be able to recognize and take advantage of emotions, especially considering that emotions are often the most powerful fuel for making change. Second, it is important to be able to choose long-term goals over short-term emotional relief, while understanding the importance of finding a constructive approach to dealing with all kinds of emotions in the present.

According to Seth Godin's blog post from 2017, emotional professionalism and a leader's emotional labor can be summed up in the following way:

“The work of doing what we don’t necessarily feel like doing, the work of being a professional, the work of engaging with others in a way that leads to the best long-term outcome.” Source

The quote above captures well what an emotionally professional leader looks like. While confronted with emotions such as fear, hopelessness or joy, they are aware of the source of their feelings, they are comfortable with them, and while they feel them, they can engage their logical part of the brain and make a decision considering the long term.

Seth Godin describes emotional maturity as having the ability to be compassionate when faced with difficult times, to help your team members name and understand their emotional states, especially collectively, and then to inspire action and engage them in a positive action towards change.

Change-making is not easy. But it doesn't have to be a lonely journey. Incorporating emotional literacy into your activism can help make the process smoother for you and your team. When emotions are recognized, understood, and expressed appropriately, we open up the possibility of connecting with each other to create meaningful change.

How to start your personal growth?

● Learn about your own emotions, observe yourself, start a journal or download an app for tracking your emotional states

● Expand your emotional vocabulary, go beyond “sad, happy, angry”

● Make space for expressing emotions, start with yourself and invite the team to join even if they are reluctant – keep doors open

● Ask for help! Organize a workshop with an external trainer, invite a guest speaker.

● Look at the role of positive emotions in your team, observe the impact of difficult moments and the emotional energy in your team, open a conversation about what can be done for better emotional culture in your organization

Where can you learn more?

Further reading:

Further studying:

Learn more about your own emotional traits on Liz Fosselain and Mollie West Duffy website:

1. How do you express emotion? Are you an under-emoter, even-emoter, or over-emoter?

2. How well do you practice emotional self-care? Are you an emotional self-care protector, fair-weather protector, or opponent?

3. How do emotions affect your decision-making? Are you a thinker, an in-the-moment feeler, or a calculating feeler?

4. How do you handle conflict? Are you a conflict avoider, a people pleaser, or a confronter?

5. What is your burnout profile? Are you overextended, disengaged, ineffective, or burned out?

6. How do you express anger? Are you an anger controller, suppressor, projector, or transformer?

7. How much of a perfectionist are you? Are you a healthy striver or a perfectionist?

8. What is your tolerance for uncertainty? Are you an uncertainty seeker, balancer, or avoider?

Create an emotionally fearless culture:

About the Author

Anna Kuliberda is an organization change consultant, educator, and coach who focuses on developing strong team cultures and creative, innovative organizations. Her main interests include the following: catalyzing innovation and facilitating change, empowering organization and individuals in creativity and joy, using active methods in training, well-being and anti burnout solutions for organizations.

Background illustration: Photo by ant from Adobe Stock license