We have all experienced negative emotions at work — our own and those of our co-workers, bosses and clients.  When stressful situations, difficult conversations or challenging circumstances arise, our tendency is to react instinctively – usually out of fear, anger, or self-doubt – making it difficult to create desirable outcomes and effectively lead others. In fact, leading others has to start with being able to lead ourselves, including managing our emotions.  

Through our work with leaders and organizations, we have seen many well-intentioned but stressed out and frustrated leaders lose their cool with their employees.  Unfortunately, this tends to go against everything we’ve learned about the importance of fostering psychological safety in teams. Google’s Project Aristotle study of 180 teams found that more than anything else, the highest performing teams share the quality of psychological safety.   In other words, it turns out that making it safe for team members feel to share their perspective, speak up when they disagree, or when they need help or don’t understand something is a powerful competitive advantage.  

Emotions are contagious. As a consequence, a leader’s ability to skillfully regulate their emotions not only increases their well-being, but also positively impacts those around them. Moods that start at the top of an organization tend to spread like wildfire, making it critical for leaders to become skilled at recognizing and regulating their negative emotions in the workplace.  Once a leader feels anger rising, there are only three options: let it out, keep it bottled up, or create the space to consciously choose how to respond. In most workplaces, yelling is not an option that is appreciated. Does managing your emotions mean staying silent when you’re angry? Not at all. Recent neuroscience research has concluded that suppressing emotions can actually inhibit long-term memory and trigger emotional distress in others, hurting relationships and decreasing trust (in other words, psychological safety decreases). 

Daniel Goleman describes managing emotions as the foundation for a number of leadership competencies, including self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability and innovation. The good news is that even as adults, our brains are malleable and there are specific practices that can help us develop the ability to manage our emotions in ways that lead to 1) reduced cortisol (a stress hormone leading to all sorts of health issues, including cardiovascular disease), 2) improved communication in relationships, and 3) enhanced memory in stressful situations.

There are three strategies we can all use to become more self-aware and reduce negative emotions, as a pathway to managing our emotions more effectively: 

  1. Increase mindfulness in the moment.  Start by bringing the intention of responding thoughtfully vs. reactively in stressful situations.  Noticing your emotional and physiological response, pausing and taking a breath, can be a powerful place to begin.
  2. Entertain the most positive response you can muster in the moment.  Even if you don’t act on it, consider the kindest response you could offer, that would lead to a positive outcome for all concerned. If you’re really daring, try it and see what happens.
  3. Journal to unpack your triggers and increase self-awareness. It is hard to be aware of your unconscious patterns without slowing down your thinking.  By journaling, you can begin to notice layers of emotions, become more aware of physiological changes in your body under stress and challenge your perspective. Create some space to think strategically about how you will try to respond in the future.  Thinking things through when you’re not caught up in the stress response can be much more productive!

The research supports the ability of the brain to change, but it has to start with your personal willingness to do the work.  Your leadership effectiveness, your relationships and your health depend on it.