Leadership is rewarding, but it can also be stressful and frustrating. That’s why it’s so important to be able to manage your emotions as you lead your people.
Us people are emotional beings, so we can’t avoid emotions.
Being able to manage your emotions is not about getting rid of them. We can’t do that, as our bodies automatically register emotional reactions based on the events we observe.
Then, the brain gets involved and turns this emotional chemical reaction into a feeling. Feelings like fear, happiness, surprise or jealousy, along with many others.
I believe that what we really want, then, is to respond to our emotions more effectively and constructively.
To be able to show up the way we want to in our leadership and our lives, even when faced with a challenging emotion.
Exploiting the Gap Between the Emotion and Your Response
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist who survived the concentration camps during World War II and subsequently wrote the popular book “Man’s Search for Meaning“.
One of the insights from his time in the concentration camp was that even though it was a terrible environment, some people seemed to be able to maintain a positive attitude, while others tended to struggle.
Based on this, Frankl then observed that there was a “gap” between the emotions we experience and the actions we take in response.
When you can observe and extend this gap, you have a better chance of being able to respond constructively, rather than be overwhelmed by your emotions.
I consider this difference to be responding rather than reacting. Responding implies that we are in control, and we are deciding what to do.
Reacting, on the other hand, implies that we are instinctively acting, rather than thoughtfully processing the situation before taking action.
Ideally, we want to use the gap between emotion and response to be able to behave constructively and appropriately, rather than flying into a rage or collapsing in a heap.
Why Does Managing Your Emotions Matter?
For one thing, being unable to manage your emotions can result in a perception that you are unprofessional.
People may also consider you to be unstable, making you a bigger risk to work with or to put in front of important people.
Being unable to manage your emotions can also damage trust and relationships, which are both important parts of leadership.
Team members may become fearful of engaging with an overly emotional leader, resulting in that leader being perceived as unapproachable.
On the flip side of this are of course the opposite of these bad things! Managing your emotions well means:
- People perceive you as more capable and competent, because you appear calm and measured
- It’s more likely that people will trust you to handle important or stressful moments effectively; and
- You’re more likely to appear as a consistent leader. That is, people won’t be worried about which version of you will show up on any given day!
All of these examples highlight the importance of being able to manage your emotions during your leadership role.
Learn More: Why Building Trust Is Better Than Authority.
My Own Story of Managing Emotions
Many people have told me over my career that I am “always calm” at work. Of course, this isn’t always true, it just looks that way.
In fact, appearing calm might just be me paralysed by fear and therefore taking no action at all!
One of the emotions I have always struggled with is that of frustration. Over time, my frustrations would get the better of me in complex workplaces and I’d gradually become more annoyed, and less able to control my emotions.
Or more correctly, I was less able to respond effectively to the emotions I was experiencing.
In one example, I remember yelling at a contractor we were dealing with on a project when they failed to deliver something.
For me, this was out of character and not the way I wanted to show up at work. Of course, I apologised afterwards but in many cases, the damage is already done. You can’t put the cork back in the bottle!
So over time, I decided I wanted to be better at managing my emotional response. I’m definitely not the most fiery character out there, but I still thought it was something I should work on.
Simple Ways to Better Manage Your Emotions
In this post, I want to mention some specific ways that I have used to try to better manage my own emotions. Hopefully, you can try some of these for yourself and see what works!
None of these ideas will stop emotions or feelings from occurring altogether. Instead, they look at some ways to be more in tune with how you’re feeling, and how to respond in a way that you can be proud of.
1. Build Awareness of Your Emotions
The first step to being able to respond better to your emotions is to become more aware of them.
Without having a sense of the chemicals exploding around your body (the emotional reaction), it’s easy to be caught unawares by strong emotions. Sometimes, you may not even be able to identify what the emotion is!
To help with this, there are a few tools that may help. The first is mindfulness.
Once I started trying to improve my emotional regulation, I was recommended a simple mindfulness exercise by a colleague at work.
A Simple Mindfulness Technique
The exercise is simple. Sit quietly and notice the feeling of different parts of your body.
For example, the feeling of your toes inside your shoes, or your back against the chair. Observe feelings of discomfort, pain or tension. Do this around your whole body.
Then notice how you feel in general. Tired? Tense? Relaxed? Happy?
Whatever the answer or feeling, it doesn’t really matter as there are no wrong answers. It’s just about being more present to the sensations.
What I noticed over time was that I started to notice emotions based on how my body was feeling. For example, if I was in a meeting, I would sometimes notice my shoulders tensing up for no obvious reason.
I gradually realised that my tense shoulders were a sign of stress. From then on, I could more easily notice these signs, and I could consciously relax my shoulders to ease the tension.
This led me to becoming more aware of my emotions and therefore, less likely to be caught out by them!
Learn More: 5 Simple Mindfulness Practices.
Use the Wheel of Emotions
If you’re someone who can’t always instantly identify the emotion you are feeling at any given time, you’re not alone. Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly is going on.
Enter the “Wheel of Emotions”. This tool can help you to identify emotions that may not be so obvious at first.
You can see one such wheel below.
You can use a wheel like this to try to pinpoint the exact emotion, which will hopefully make it easier to process.
Rather than just feeling “Angry”, you might narrow it down to a more specific feeling like “Disrespected” which is a whole lot more insightful.
Doing this can help you to better understand what’s going on inside your own mind, so you can try to deal with the situation on the outside which has caused it.
2. Manage Your Emotions By Considering Alternative Explanations
Alternative Explanations are a technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help people find new ways of looking at situations.
I’m not a therapist and I’m not saying you need therapy, but I came across this handy technique as part of the PRINT work that I do with leaders and teams.
The process is simple, and involves considering alternative explanations for events or behaviours that are causing stress or concern.
One example I like to use is the situation where someone speaks over you in a meeting.
Your first instinct is probably to think they’re rude, inconsiderate and a person lacking in integrity. These thoughts are likely to bring with them strong emotions of feeling disrespected or slighted.
So, let’s consider the alternatives. Someone might speak over you in a meeting because they:
- Are really passionate about the point they are putting across
- Have a boss who is putting pressure on them to push a certain idea or point; or
- Aren’t really aware that they are talking over you at all.
You get the idea.
The point here is not to excuse bad behaviour like speaking over you. The point is that considering alternative explanations tends to reduce the strength of your emotional response.
This means you can respond more constructively and appropriately, rather than letting your emotions take over.
These techniques take practice, but they can really help you to manage your emotions more effectively.
3. Widen the Gap Between Emotion and Response
Earlier in this article we looked at Viktor Frankl’s observation of the gap between emotion and response.
We can try to use this to our advantage, by extending this gap as much as possible. The wider the gap, the easier we will be able to feel the emotion, process it and respond accordingly (rather than potentially reacting rashly).
The good news is that research has shown that the chemical process involved in emotions completes after around 90 seconds. This means that emotions generally fade within this time.
Now, you might wonder why you may continue to feel angry or sad after this 90 seconds. Usually, this is because your thoughts are bringing up these emotions again.
Of course, many workplace interactions that may cause strong emotion are quite quick. We can’t simply wait 90 seconds before responding to someone’s nasty comment, for example.
Try These Simple Techniques to Widen the Gap
However, here are some ideas you can use to try to widen the gap between feeling the emotions and your response:
- Take a time out. If you’re in the middle of a tense situation and can feel your emotions rising, see if you can reconvene at a later time. Go outside, get some fresh air and let the emotions fade before continuing.
- Do it tomorrow. About to send that nasty email or call someone and let them have it? How about waiting until the next morning instead? Chances are, you will respond much more effectively after the heat of the moment has passed. You may even choose not to respond at all.
- Confirm your understanding. If someone says something that stirs strong emotions in you, try summarising and reflecting the statement back to them to confirm your understanding. Ask some questions to clarify, before you respond. This can buy you some time to process your emotions.
- Pause. Even a short two to three second pause can help you to process your emotions and potentially respond in a more constructive way.
These are deceptively simple techniques, but they can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment. Be sure to practice them and you’ll get better at using them over time!
4. Check Your Intentions
Lastly, I think it’s always a good step to check your intentions before you respond in an emotional situation.
In my career, I can remember several times that I chose to let my emotions control my response, when I could have been more composed.
On one of these occasions, I said some harsh things to some senior managers who were playing politics, showing a lack of integrity and making my team’s job much more difficult.
I knew I was doing it, but I didn’t care. I wanted to let them have it, so I did.
This might have felt good at the time, but it damaged the relationship and didn’t exactly persuade them to see my point of view! In hindsight, it wasn’t the best leadership behaviour I’ve ever demonstrated.
The point is, check your intention.
Is your intention to hurt someone else, to put them in their place, or to make them feel bad?
Or is your intention to achieve a positive outcome?
If it’s the latter, then it’s clear that delivering a strong emotional response will probably not help. There are more constructive ways to influence or convince people of a better way forward.
If your intention is to hurt, then it’s probably best to avoid the interaction altogether.
Manage Your Emotions For Better Leadership
Emotions are an important part of the human experience, so we should never dismiss them.
However, there are limits to the emotions we should show in the workplace, if we want to lead effectively, be good role models and build trust.
Use your emotions as information. When you feel a strong emotion, identify what’s behind it. This can help you make sense of your work environment and the interactions you’re having.
Then instead of being a slave to your emotions, use them to inform your response.
What techniques do you use to manage your emotions in your leadership role? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!