When it comes to leadership, many people believe that it’s the things we do that make the difference. The actions we take, the words we say.
While of course our actions are important, I believe it’s often the things we don’t do that can make a huge difference too. This is why exercising restraint is so critical.
Throughout our lives and work, we’ll often feel instinctively compelled to do things. Some of these things are good, and others not so good.
Exercising restraint will help you to reduce the bad actions, so most of what you’re left with is the good stuff. Imagine being a leader who just takes good actions, that provide benefit for themselves, the team and the workplace?
Why Do Leaders Sometimes Feel Compelled to Do Bad Things?
First, let’s define “bad”. Bad doesn’t necessarily mean evil or malicious.
In this context, doing a “bad” thing means doing something that is not helping the situation. We’ll look at some examples of these potential situations later in this post.
But why does it happen?
Well, in my experience it’s because of all the things going on for us beneath the surface. The things people can’t see, but are strong drivers in our behaviour.
These include factors like thoughts, emotions, values, previous experiences, stress, mental health challenges and motivations.
Learn More: Want to Build Empathy? Use the Iceberg Model.
Our Thoughts and Emotions Influence Our Behaviour
Consider our thoughts for a moment. Research suggests that on average, people have more than 6,000 thoughts per day. That’s a lot of thoughts, and you can bet that they aren’t all going to be positive or constructive.
It doesn’t stop there, because our thoughts can trigger emotions. Emotions are powerful forces that influence our behaviour.
Emotions arise as a result of events happening to us or around us, and then feelings come from how we perceive the situation. We’ll tend to have a physiological response to emotions too, like sweating, a faster heartbeat or an increased breathing rate.
All of this means that we may feel compelled to take action to reduce a threat or to help us feel more calm and relaxed.
If these emotions happen to trigger our fears or insecurities, our response may be stronger, and we may end up taking actions that we later regret.
Learn More: How to Manage Your Emotions For Better Leadership.
When Should We Be Exercising Restraint?
There are a number of situations where I’ve noticed leaders come unstuck when they are unable to exercise restraint. Here are a few common ones that I’ve observed throughout my own career, and from coaching other leaders:
- Saving the day. We may feel compelled to help our people at the first sign of trouble, rather than let them deal with their problems and learn from the experience.
- Saying “Yes”. Sometimes we feel compelled to say “yes” to incoming work demands because we like to please people, or we’re fearful of the consequences of pushing back or negotiating our workload.
- Doing the work yourself. Ever said “It’s easier if I just do it myself”? We often do this because we don’t want to take the time to up-skill our people, or because we enjoy doing the work!
- Monitoring your team. Nervous leaders may constantly check-in with their people to learn the progress of their tasks. However, this can demonstrate a lack of trust which can damage the confidence of the team.
- Making decisions. Sometimes we may be tempted to make snap decisions, and be “decisive”. But most decisions in the workplace aren’t urgent, so we don’t need to rush into a response.
- Giving an answer. Some leaders feel very uncomfortable saying “I don’t know” or “I’ll have a think about this and get back to you”. Instead, they may provide a quick response that will be hard to revisit later.
- Emotional outbursts. Whether it’s an angry email or a snippy retort to a defiant team member, we can be tempted to “show someone who’s the boss” or “put them in their place”. However, this can cause long-lasting damage to trust and motivation in a team.
You’ll probably recognise many of these situations, and probably have some of your own examples too.
Learn More: The Impact and Importance of Emotions in Leadership.
How to Exercise Restraint and Show Better Leadership
Instead of delving into these situations in detail, for the rest of this post I’d like to suggest some ideas as to how we might be able to exercise restraint, instead of giving into our base instincts.
1. Start Exercising Restraint by Understanding Your Triggers
We all have “triggers” that tend to set us off. These might be things people say or do, or situations that have us feeling stressed or upset.
Some examples include when people speak over you or dismiss your ideas, or last minute demands which leave you no time for preparation.
Often these triggers will be related to our core values or motivations. When situations run counter to our values, principles or motivations, we’re likely to be triggered, and potentially do or say things that we may later regret.
For example, if “respect” is one of your core values, then you’re likely to have a strong reaction to disrespectful behaviour in the workplace.
To understand your triggers, you can use reports such as the PRINT assessment, which give you a rundown of your major triggers as well as your core motivations.
Or, you could understand your values better using cards like the Live Your Values deck. This will give you a better understanding of the things you hold dear, and therefore the things that might set you off.
Or, you can ask others for feedback. This might be part of a 360 review process, or simply by speaking to someone you trust, who works with you closely and who will provide you with their honest opinion.
When you understand your own triggers, you have a better chance of noticing when they occur, preparing for them and developing strategies to reduce their impact or avoid them altogether.
Exercising restraint is much easier when you have this information at your fingertips.
Learn More: Why You Need to Know Your Values In Leadership.
2. Start Exercising Restraint By Taking a Pause
I’ve written before about Viktor Frankl and his time in concentration camps, where he discovered “the gap” between feeling an emotion and responding.
The gap is where you can collect yourself, process the emotion and respond, instead of reacting completely out of instinct.
Taking a pause is an effective strategy because it allows your emotions to subside before acting. This is easier when you’re dealing with a nasty email for example, but can be much harder when you’re dealing with someone in person.
So how do we take a pause? We can:
- Excuse ourselves to take a break
- Take a drink of water (always keep it handy!)
- Count to 3 in your head before responding
- Take a deep breath
- Rephrase a question or statement you just heard, to confirm your understanding; or
- Request extra time: “I’ll need to think about that and let you know later on.”
All of these small acts have the ability to buy us a little time to process what has just happened, and hopefully help our emotions fade.
3. Start Exercising Restraint by Being Curious
Being curious is a handy tool. Imagine if we could be genuinely interested in the underlying reasons behind a situation, or a person’s behaviour?
Adopting a curious mindset can take the sting out of the emotional response we feel, because it helps us to uncover the root cause of an issue, rather than just dealing with the symptoms that we can see.
To be more curious, try some of these ideas:
- Start by asking questions
- Listen attentively, instead of just waiting for your turn to speak
- Be open to the possibility that you may be wrong about something
- Remember the iceberg model. What lies beneath the surface is a strong driver of human behaviour!
- Remember that very few people come to work to do a bad job, or upset people
- Keep in mind that it’s not always about you. It might not be your personal shortcomings that have caused an issue; and
- Focus on what you’re learning from the situation, instead of the pain it is causing you.
Curiosity becomes a habit, so start with small steps. Over time, you’ll hopefully cultivate a more curious mindset that can help you navigate challenging situations.
4. Reflect and Do an Audit
Reflection is an extremely important part of thoughtful leadership. For some people it comes naturally, while others may need to make it a more intentional practice.
I’m quite introspective by nature, so I always find time to think about what I could do better, or what factors contributed to a difficult or successful situation.
It can be useful to book time for yourself to reflect and do an audit of the past week.
From the perspective of exercising restraint, you might ask yourself:
When did I do something that I now feel I shouldn’t have done? What was the trigger?
When did I feel tempted to do something that I know I shouldn’t? What was the trigger?
Did I successfully exercise restraint which led to a good outcome? How did I do it? What factors helped me?
Did I exercise restraint which led to a poor outcome? What might have been better?
Over time, you’ll gain a better understanding of your natural tendencies and instincts. This will hopefully help you to adjust your behaviour so you can reduce issues and start leading more effectively.
Our Instincts Can Get Us In Trouble
Gone are the days when we’re likely to be eaten by a lion or tiger.
Much of the time, our fight or flight instinct doesn’t help us so much in the workplace, and in leadership.
Could you exercise more restraint, and improve your leadership?
Do you have trouble exercising restraint from time to time? Or have you got it nailed? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!