Do Your Emotions Torpedo You at Work?

The scene: Justin, the regional head of sales for a pet supply company, just presented a new product to Alice and her team, buyers for a large retail chain. Justin has just finished, and as soon as he leaves Alice turns to her team and says, “What’s up with him? Does he want our stores to sell his products or not? We planned this meeting a month ago, and he’s been pitching us for a year. But he seemed stressed and had no enthusiasm. And he lacks the most basic understanding of our goals and what our customers want. I don’t see us moving forward with this.”

Justin didn’t realize he was in over his head, but Alice could see something was wrong.

Here’s the back story to his lackluster presentation: Justin was facing a perfect storm of staff changes and a product recall crisis on a different product. It was two weeks before yet a third new product was about to launch, and planning for the launch event was seriously behind schedule. A lot had to get done and the people who normally handled various tasks were not available. He was overwhelmed.

Trying to get a handle on the long list of tasks still to be done, Justin had started to panic, and one way it showed was in his disconnected performance at that meeting.

When Emotional Self-Control is Missing

Often people think that being emotionally out of control looks like someone who yells constantly or weeps at the slightest provocation. But lack of emotional self-management takes many forms; Justin’s inability to manage his anxiety about the event planning is just one manifestation of a leader who is poor at handling stress and upsets.

Emotional Self-Control is a key Competency in my Emotional and Social Leadership Competency Model. Leaders skilled in this Competency can manage their disruptive emotions and stay clear-headed and able to focus even when they are under stress or facing a crisis.

Anxiety like Justin’s can show up in different ways. In a recent article, Victor Morrison, a high-level leader with a wealth of experience, writes about being promoted to a challenging position, the emotions he experienced, and how he learned to manage his disruptive emotions effectively. Victor tells of the many ways distressing emotions can cause problems, including increased criticism of staff and overly controlling your direct reports—even when they have more relevant expertise than you do.

The Consequences of Emotions Out of Control

Apart from his failure to make a big sale, what if Justin’s anxiety also leaked out as excessive criticism of the people around him? Chances are that his staff would withhold their creative ideas for fear that he’d shoot them down. A leader’s ability to stay calm under pressure is critical to the success of the entire group. As research at the Yale School of Management shows, a leader’s emotions leak, infecting the whole team. If the leader is engaged and enthusiastic, the team will be, and performance improves. But if the leader has poor emotional management skills, his or her distress will be contagious, and performance will drop.

How Can You Learn to Manage Your Emotions?

The good news about the Emotional Intelligence Competencies is that they are skills you can learn. Just as you can take steps to improve your golf swing or other physical techniques, you can also strengthen your emotional skills.

What could Justin do to build his ability with Emotional Self-Control? First, he needs to recognize when he has disturbing emotions and how they are causing problems. That calls for another EI Competency, Emotional Self-Awareness, the ability to recognize your feelings and how they impact your behavior. Often, a step toward such awareness is feedback from trusted colleagues or mentors.

In Justin’s case, that might mean Eva, the company sales director with whom he’d worked for years, could give him some frank, confidential feedback. Such a colleague could acknowledge Justin’s stressful situation and ask about the meeting with Alice and about rumors she’d heard of Justin’s increased criticism of his team members. At first, Justin might be defensive. Hopefully, Eva could help Justin see that no matter how challenging a situation might be, he needed to find ways to cope and not have it impact his work.

After recognizing his anxiety got in the way, how could Justin manage future tough situations? My colleague George Kohlrieser, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD in Switzerland, offers advice in my new release, Emotional Self-Control: A Primer. He said, “This idea of remaining calm, composed, and collected is to learn the signals of when you are about to go into an overreaction so that you can prevent it. Part of that is also rewiring your brain to stay calm. You can rewire your brain through mindfulness meditation, by taking deep breaths, or by finding alternative healthy ways to release your emotions, such as writing them down. Whatever method you use to calm down, you need to practice it regularly so your body can learn how to return to calm.”

That is the key, learning ways to “hit the pause button” long enough to keep yourself from going into an overreaction. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to acknowledge thoughts and feelings but not overly identify with them. You notice them when they are present, but do not get carried away by them.

Emotional Self-Control in Action

What if Justin recognized his level of stress and had been skilled in the Emotional Self-Control Competency? How could he have handled himself going into the meeting with Alice? As soon as Justin felt his anxiety rising, he would have realized he needed to take steps to keep that anxiety in check. As an expert whitewater canoeist told me, when she is about to paddle a challenging rapid, it’s not that she doesn’t have butterflies in her stomach, it’s that she gets those butterflies flying in formation. Using deep breaths or mindfulness, Justin could notice his feelings and know that he had a choice in how to respond to them. Before walking in the door to the meeting, he could put aside thoughts of the product launch event, focus his attention on the work he’d done over the year to cultivate the relationship with Alice’s company, and maintain that focus. Had he done that, he might have walked out of that meeting well on his way to an important contract.

Additionally, this Competency can help you take a step back and address the real problem, in order to prevent the conditions from which harmful emotions arise in the first place. In this case, it’s clear that Justin is overwhelmed with responsibilities. Rather than taking that anxiety to his supervisors and conveying a sense of incapability, Justin could assess the entire situation and propose ways to make his role more manageable. Perhaps it’s to hire an additional team member to handle certain responsibilities, or it’s to better prioritize his time. Once his emotions are balanced, it’s far easier to see the big picture and come up with sustainable solutions.

(This blog was originally published on LinedIn. It has been re-posted here with prior permission from Daniel Goleman.)

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Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman is the Co-Director of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations....

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