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Why Emoticons Are Killing Emotion

By Tacy Byham, Ph.D.

Tacy ByhamLast month, Facebook announced the highly anticipated additions to their “Like” and “Comment” buttons. They recognized that users wanted to express more complex responses than these two simple constructs would allow. For example, when your co-worker has a new baby and they post the adorable photo of big brother smiling down at his new baby sister. You don’t simply “Like” this, you “Love” this. In another instance, you might see a post about a friend’s grandfather who has passed away. You’ll certainly want to express your sympathies, but pressing the “Like” button may not express the proper emotion.

But, here is the challenge (and maybe the opportunity). Facebook has proposed the following line-up of emoticons to allow us to offer an immediate response:


Thank goodness these new buttons finally allow users to express a variety of emotions. Or do they?

Crossing the chasm between knowing and saying

not equalI saw this in action just a month ago. Dorothy, an old family friend, passed away of cancer at the age of 88. I was at the funeral with my mom and my dad. Dorothy’s five children were all there and I felt the swell of heartfelt sympathy surge within me. I knew that if I could only express this emotion thoughtfully, Dorothy’s children would have at least a small amount of comfort. But the words didn’t come to me.

I was struggling to move out of my head and say something, and my mom leaned in, took the one daughter’s hand and said just the right thing. She told her daughter that your mom was a part of our family for 20 years. I know you struggled in High School and this really worried your mom. I know she’s so pleased to see how you have blossomed as an adult.

My mom was able to cross the chasm between knowing what to say and, in turn, saying the right thing at the right time. Why? My mom had that muscle memory. She had been in that situation enough times previously to create a habit.

Now, if I had my emoticons handy, I would have simply pressed the “Sad” button :( . But, is that really connecting in the same way my mother did? The emoticons make it easy, but what happens if we reduce our connections with others to seven emotional responses?

Leadership is not an emotion-free zone

Leadership starts with a simple truth: people come to work with both practical needs (to get work done) and personal needs (to be respected and valued). Your best leaders are what my co-author Rich Wellins and I call Catalyst Leaders in our new book, Your First Leadership Job. Catalyst leaders represent the gold standard—energetic, supportive, forward-thinking mentors that spark action in others. To accomplish this, they live in an emotion-laden world. They are able to connect with their teams, the same way my mom connected with Dorothy’s daughter. It was her ability to acknowledge and respond to a complex set of emotions in real time that helped reinforce that very human connection.

Think about the last time you were really upset and told a boss, manager, or colleague the whole story—in all its emotional and glorious (or not!) detail. When you finished, the person probably paused and said, I know exactly how you feel. What was your very first reaction to that? Was it No. You don’t? The most common mistake people make is to use a phrase like, I know how you feel that sounds empathetic, but in fact means nothing.

I worry that the new “Sad” :( emoticon offered by Facebook will do the same thing. It will deceive the listener into believing they have expressed true empathy. In reality, all they did was click a button. You didn’t say anything to me that made me feel better?

Instead, what they’ve done here is to demonstrate that they haven’t really heard you at all. Worse, it probably made you feel like you were being managed. In one fell swoop, they burned valuable time by turning the discussion away from you, and then pushed you farther away from them and a potential solution. Feel familiar?

The reality is that you can watch all the 90-second videos or TedTalks you want on how to have rich, connected conversations, but there are no short-cuts to building the skills to say exactly the right thing at the right time. A well-placed empathy statement, like the one that my mom used, can save the day. These skills can atrophy if we learn to rely on “check the box” empathy emoticons.

Another way of thinking about this is that to truly master a skill one must put the time and energy into the task. I’ve often asked learners, “If you were having corrective eye surgery, do you want the doctor who’s spent 100 hours reading a book on the process, or the doctor that has performed the procedure 100 times?” You want the latter, of course, because there’s no shortcut to true skill.

It is our role to help leaders build the confidence and competence to take on a challenge. To do that, they need practice, they need to form the right words, repeatedly, and over time, to build a muscle-memory.

Emotional muscle memory: boomers vs. millennials

Do today’s leaders have that emotional muscle memory? Are Millennials any better prepared to be catalyst leaders than their Boomer leaders? What do two recent research studies tell us?

As we just discussed, a key skill for leaders of all ages to master is the ability to empathize. I recently read a NY Times article about researchers at the University of Michigan completing a meta-analysis of 72 studies over 30 years on the skill of empathy. They found a 40 percent decline in college students with a precipitous decline after the year 2000. They cited a connection with the boom of technology and communicating through devices as a factor in the decline. By inference, Millennials aren’t getting the same practice time as their Boomer leaders.

To measure this, the Michigan researchers tested whether students could recognize opportunities to show empathy, know it, and then whether they could express the right thing at the right time to empathize and make an emotional connection, say it. The meta-analysis revealed that luckily students could recognize it, but they had fallen short in their ability to say an empathic statement.

Another study further illustrates that Millennials lack emotional muscle memory. Recent research by Talk Talk Mobile found that 72 percent of 18-25 year-olds admitted they found it easier to express their feelings through emojis, a more graphically-enhanced cousin of the emoticon, rather than text.

So, while emojis and emoticons may be connecting millennials in a digital sphere, I can’t help but wonder if it’s disconnecting us in reality.

Ban emoticons? Instead practice your emotional statements

When Facebook adds the new sad button :( , are they enabling skills as empathic leaders?  - NO!

As you move through your leadership career, you’ll have many chances to use your empathy skills in emotionally charged conversations. Some will flow better than others. Take a moment to imagine the impact of those many conversations and how they’ll color what people will say about your leadership ability.

Take my advice. Ditch the emoticons and don’t fall into the trap of using “check list” empathy. Develop the skills to say the right thing at the right time to create and reinforce the human connections that enable you to be a successful leader.


Tacy Byham, Ph.D. is DDI's Chief Executive Officer.

Posted: 20 Nov, 2015,
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