How Great Leaders Respond To Their Emotions
Updated: May 12
Think back to a time when your emotions got the best of you.
How did that show up for you? Did you lose your cool and raise your voice? Did you say something you didn’t mean to say because you were being sarcastic...or did you get passive-aggressive? Did you go radio silent because you were so upset inside that you shut down?
Maybe, you don’t actually remember the ‘last time’ your emotions got the best of you, because you don’t usually pay attention to what you're feeling -- you just respond.
I’m talking about the time a colleague or direct report interrupted you in your office when you were working toward a tight deadline and you brushed her off, or when you didn’t respond to an someone’s comment in a meeting because you were afraid of what others would think, or you were too busy to say hello to your colleagues you passed when you entered the office in the morning. If your goal is to be a successful leader, you will do well to choose your emotional responses, instead of letting your emotions gain power over you, enslave you, or sabotage you.
And if you’re a leader, or want to be a leader, choosing your emotions instead of responding on impulse will be critical to your success.
Two Ways Uncontrolled Emotions Sabotage Leaders
So what happens when we let our emotions run ourselves, especially as leaders?
First, if you’re a leader at work and you don’t control your emotions, it can hurt the culture and performance of your team and even your organization.
Daniel Goleman, the author of the first breakthrough book on emotional intelligence, found in his leadership research that a leader’s mood and behaviors “act like a contagion, driving the moods and behaviors of everyone else, like electricity through wires.” He also found that the climate created by a leader determines up to 30% of the organizations’ financial performance. In addition, 50-70% of how employees perceive their organization's climate is attributable to the actions and behaviors of their leader.
Second, losing control of your emotions can hurt the performance of someone you manage. Gallup found that the most engaged employees feel that their managers care about them as people first and as employees second. When employees feel cared about in a work environment, they’re more likely to experiment with new ideas, share information, and support their coworkers. And, employees who feel cared about give their manager the benefit of the doubt when their manager does slip up.
So if you, as a leader, lose control of your emotions around your employees, do you think they will feel that you care about them?
When employees don’t feel cared about, they become disengaged, which negatively impacts the culture, slows productivity, and causes higher turnover.
When I teach classes on emotional intelligence, I ask the participants to remember their worst boss in their lives, and then to list that worst boss’ traits. Here are some of their answers:
Passive-aggressive, Non-supportive, Unappreciative, Plays favorites, Detached, Negative, Fearful, Critical, Dismissive, Disrespectful, Angry, Stressed out, Impatient.
Next, I ask the class participants how their worst boss made them feel. Here are some of their answers:
Depressed, Unworthy, Withdrawn, Not invested , Anxious, Angry, Irritated, Avoided people, Affected home life, Looking for work, Find a new path.
The bottom line? When you let your emotions have the upper hand, it creates a disconnect with your employees, distances you from them, triggers negative responses from them, and de-motivates them.
Shouldn’t We Show That We’re Human?
BUT, you may argue...shouldn’t we be real and authentic with our emotions, even as leaders? We’re human, after all! Shouldn’t we show our employees that we’re human too? Isn’t it good to express how we really feel?
One of my clients, a VP named Tony, told me, “I get angry because I’m passionate about our company doing the right thing for our customers. It shows them how important it is.”
He managed a team of project managers, or PMs, in a construction company, and he had been a superstar project manager himself. But now as a PM leader, some of his PMs were delivering houses to customers that weren’t complete. Though he monitored their long checklists of items to complete weekly, they still couldn’t get them all done.
He lost his temper with some of his PMs, more than once. And understandably. His PMs even lied to him about completing some of the items on the checklist. That would make you angry too, right?
But put yourself in his PMs’ shoes. Might you lie too about an item you didn’t get done on the checklist, to avoid getting yelled at by Tony?
And if you’re the PM who’s getting yelled at, what would you think about Tony’s reputation? What would you think about his credibility?
Tony lost his composure often enough that I was brought in to help him change his emotional responses. The thing is, Tony didn’t know what he didn’t know. When he saw the results of his multi-rater assessment, he was shocked to see how low his team members anonymously rated him on his composure, on making decisions fairly, and on the climate of his team. His emotional outbursts were sabotaging his career.
What other emotions might leaders struggle with controlling?
Not Controlling Perfectionism
Consider a new leader, Amy. Amy really wants to do the right thing. She’s also self-critical, perfectionist and overwhelmed. She internally beats herself up and withdraws every time people don’t agree with her decision or something doesn’t go the way she expected it to.
Of course, her team members don’t know what’s going on inside her head, all they see is that she’s sometimes withdrawn, not making eye contact, and frowning.
If you work with or for Amy and this is how she acts, what would you think about her reputation? what about her credibility?
Amy too, might be sabotaging her career with her withdrawals and defensiveness.
What do these two leaders have in common?
Our Primitive Triggers
They’ve forgotten to connect with the people they lead and work with.
And it was easy for them to forget, because that’s how our brain works.
The most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, is the part of the brain that first processes our emotions. It flags the events that threaten us or present a danger to us. Thousands of years ago it might have flagged a tiger coming toward us as a threat. (Well, it would still trigger a tiger coming toward us now!)
But now we’re triggered by the events that threaten our sense of security and safety, such as our jobs or income, or that threaten our social status, such as how others view us. We don’t want to be excluded from the group, and this too stems back from primitive times. There was safety in numbers.
These triggers create strong, impulsive emotional responses. We react with these impulsive emotional responses to protect ourselves. That’s what our brain is hardwired to do.
Because these triggers happen so fast, they cause quick emotional reactions that we would not choose if we were thinking rationally, like Tony raising his voice, or Amy’s split-second drop in self-esteem that causes her to beat herself up and withdraw.
How then can we change our emotional responses if our emotional triggers are hardwired? One thing people often try to do when their emotions are taking over is to suppress their emotions. That’s our first common reaction: hide what you’re feeling. The problem with suppressing emotions is, research found it takes too much of your brain’s resources, and consequently it impairs even more your ability to think clearly.
The good news is that there are techniques you can use to regulate your emotions “in the moment” that work really well. Here are three that I learned from David Rock in Your Brain at Work.
The first technique is to label the emotion that you’re feeling. You might think saying what you’re feeling will strengthen your negative feelings. It does if you have a discussion about it, but studies show that if you name the feeling to yourself in just one or two words – even within your own mind -- you will dampen the response from that negative emotion. The second technique is to focus on your senses – like seeing the details in the clothing of the people you’re talking to or feeling your own clothing against your skin.
Rock says most successful executives have developed an ability to be in a state of high emotional arousal and still remain calm. This is partly because they use this skill of naming their emotional states. The even better news? Practicing these techniques over time makes it become an automatic response. The brain can be wired to deal better with emotions.
The third technique Rock calls the “killer app” for controlling your emotions. It’s called reappraisal, or reframing. I call it giving yourself a reality test. Basically this technique is to look for different perspectives of the situation, like seeing it from the other person’s point of view, or from an outside observer.
In other words, reinterpret the situation. Again, this is very hard to do in the heat of the emotion, but once you start practice doing this, it becomes easier and more automatic.
A study was done with hundreds of people who were grouped according to whether they suppressed their emotions or reappraised their emotions. The study found that the emotion reappraisers had far more optimism, positive relationships, and life satisfaction than the emotion suppressors. After this study, the researcher, James Gross, said “I think reappraisal should be taught early, and often. It should be in the water we drink.”
Based on this and other brain research, here are three steps you can take to stop your emotions from sabotaging you.
First, raise your awareness of your emotions, and of your emotional reactions.
How do you know when you’re having an emotional reaction?
Pay attention to the clues in your body: feeling hot inside, tensing up, faster heartbeat. (You know what I’m talking about!)
Use your physical clues as a signal to pause and think about how to respond instead of just acting on impulse. Or at least to buy some more time by asking to discuss the topic later.
Second, give yourself a reality test.
Exactly what event is upsetting me? Was it really the event that upset me or my interpretation of the event? What thought did I have about the event that upset me? What are other possible interpretations of the event?
Doing this “reality test” will help you reinterpret or reappraise the event. It can keep you from over-reacting.
Third, build resilience to your emotions.
Bad things happen. Unexpected things happen. It’s common to want to avoid or push away the icky emotions we feel. Because we don’t want to feel them.
But the more we let ourselves feel the icky emotions, the easier it gets to feel icky emotions the next time something unexpected happens. Then we won’t default to an impulse reaction because we’ll be better able to withstand, instead of suppress, those emotions and choose our response.
We can build the capacity to hold the emotion, and not react unconsciously in ways to avoid it. It’s like building a muscle. The more you lift the weight, the more you can withstand the weight.
I’m STILL building my emotional intelligence muscles, but every mis-step is helping me progress a little more.