Emotional intelligence and emotional self-regulation are critical tools for resolving conflicts and building healthy relationships. Over the last three decades, we’ve seen a lot of research on how emotional intelligence and self-regulation can play out in the workplace, particularly among leaders.This is because leaders’ emotional states and perceivable emotional responses are so influential over subordinates.
Emotional self-regulation is the concept of modifying emotional responses and behaviors to achieve a desirable outcome. According to research, It’s a vital concept for leaders because their emotional states and responses can directly shape subordinates’ emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. This is true for both positive and negative emotions, as leaders’ positive emotions often inspire positive action and mood, while angry or sad emotions similarly instigate subordinates’ anger and sadness.
With a global pandemic and national social unrest, emotions are high. To get through (or thrive in) a crisis, leaders need to have difficult conversations with their employees—all while processing their own feelings about what is going on in the world.
This is a difficult feat, which is why it’s essential to stick to simple strategies. Here are four tools that leaders can use to manage their emotions at work to foster a supportive workplace, especially amid crisis and uncertainty.
1) Commit to Staying Calm
Formally establish a self-communication rule and commit to it. This can help you develop healthy interpersonal relationships. Researchers call these emotional display rules and have found commitment to these rules critical for emotional self-regulation at work.
A rule may sound like: “No matter what happens, I stay calm. I do not react emotionally.” Or “I speak calmly and respectfully. I do not raise my voice.” And then, your job is to live by it. Make this your personal code of conduct. Fight any urge, at any moment, to break the code. Live by this rule like a marine lives by being courageous and loyal. This way, no matter what else happens, you’ll know how you need to respond.
2) Use a Mantra
When you feel defensive, and the urge to react emotionally bubbles up, repeating a simple directive to yourself can be effective. You might take your commitment—as discussed above—and create a mantra from it. Make sure that you word it in the form of a self-directed commandment.
Here’s an example: “Stay calm. Do not react. Stay calm. Do not react.” Just keep repeating it to yourself as long as necessary to fight the urge to erupt. Research has found that self-talk has helped individuals regulate emotions under conditions of social stress, especially when you phrase the self talk in second person.
3) Write a Reminder Above Your Desk
Having a written reminder of your mantra and/or your commitment can certainly be important. But it may be a little strange to have such things visible. Instead, try creating a few positive reminders for yourself about the type of mindset, attitude, or general demeanor you would like to display.
For instance, I keep the 3 C’s of a Peacebuilder’s Mindset as a reminder above my desk: “Calm, Caring, and Curious”. Remembering these intentions helps me stay emotionally regulated so that I can engage in effective, respectful interactions. Whatever reminders you choose, make them simple so you can read and internalize them in seconds. Put the reminders somewhere you’ll frequently look, like next to your computer or on the wall you face when talking to visitors (which you can view behind coworkers when they sit and face you). This message may set the tone for both you and, potentially, anyone who enters your office. In fact, according to some researchers, if you use messages to create an atmosphere of respectful, calm communication in your office, you may create an unconscious, automatic link between the environment (your office) and a relaxed, emotional state.
4) Focus on Your Breathing
In recent years, a plethora of empirical research has shown a causal link between mindfulness and emotional regulation at work, especially as this link affects workplace conflict. One central component of mindfulness practice is breathwork—the concentration on deliberate breathing for purposes of self-regulation.
When you’re feeling heated and sense you may shut down or blow up, try focusing on your breath. You might visualize a balloon, just above your waistline, inflating as you breathe in and deflating as you breathe out. There are many different visualizations you can use. Seek out and try a few to discover what works best for you. Concentrating on the breath helps bring you out of your head and into your body in the present moment, where you have far greater control over your behavior and reactions.
Also, just a tip: studies show that leaders who practice mindfulness regularly—not just in moments of emotional triggers—have an easier time regulating their emotions consistently.
If All Else Fails
Emotional self-regulation is not only an act of care for the other person(s); it is also an act of self-care. If you’re feeling stressed, try pausing, soothing, or calming yourself. When necessary, remove yourself from the situation, even temporarily.
You might calmly and politely excuse yourself, indicating you need a few moments before you can respond. Or, you might say, “I need to think about this for a bit. Can we please reopen this discussion in an hour?” Use any phrase that seems respectful and appropriate to pause the conversation so you can calm down and frame a rational response.
As a leader, your emotional state and reaction set the tone for the entire organizational climate. How you respond to situations will teach others what is appropriate in your organization. Do your best to practice effective tools for emotional self-regulation. Your company and your staff will thank you for it.