“I’m going to screw up this presentation.”

“So-and-So is completely incompetent — it’s so irritating!”

“If I don’t put in 100 hours a week like Elon Musk, I won’t seem like a team player.”

Negative thoughts like this probably fly through your head thousands of times a day, and it’s actually normal to have them. But, as Susan David and Christina Congleton outline in “Emotional Agility: How Effective Leaders Manage Negative Thoughts and Feelings,” thoughts like this can hook you like a fish. You can end up buying into them and treating them as facts or suppressing them with all kinds of rationalizations, which psychologists have already proven doesn’t work. Either way, they are a huge problem that can stunt your leadership abilities because instead of spending your precious mental energy on innovating, building incredible relationships, and improving yourself, you’re spending it on the negative thoughts. 

How to Get Unhooked

To fix this issue and be successful, you have to become more emotionally agile. David and Congleton assert you can use a four-step process for this:

  1. Recognize your patterns
  2. Label your thoughts and emotions
  3. Accept your thoughts and emotions
  4. Act on your values

So, let’s take a look at how this might play out for you at work. 

Let’s say that every time you hand out assignments to your team, you think to yourself, “I just know I’m gonna have to re-explain this process to everybody.” Then, when you have a meeting about upcoming training, you think, “I just know I’m gonna get a hundred emails and have to have people retake this.” Maybe these thoughts are derived from past experiences. Did you have previous teams that never took ownership for themselves or weren’t engaged? Or, maybe you’re super smart but never challenged yourself to get into jobs where other people had to be on top of it? Whatever the root reason might be, over time you realize that you have a habit of presuming that you’re going to have to do things multiple times. 

Then, you take a step back to label what’s going on. Rephrase your thoughts to think “I’m having the thought that I’m going to have to re-explain this process to everybody.” This simple mental shift kicks your feelings out of the driver’s seat so you can see what’s going through your mind just as data – not good, not bad, just information. That increased awareness and objectivity can immediately calm you down and help you make better decisions about how to proceed. 

Third, you lean into the experience of the moment. If you’re sad, you just accept it. If you feel like exploding, that’s OK, too. But whatever is happening in the environment, your body, or your mind, you acknowledge it and attempt to see what it’s trying to signal to you. You’re not fixing. You just are.

Lastly, you take a look at what you believe and think is important, then base your next actions on that. For example, if one of your core values is personal accountability, you could create an online tool where employees could check their understanding on their own. The beautiful thing about this step is that values stay constant over time, so you can use them as a foundation for what to do regardless of what problems you might face.

Getting Ready in Advance Goes a Long Way

To have this process go smoothly, you might need to do a little prep work first. For instance, you might need to find a quiet, private space you know you can go to for a few minutes of mindfulness, or maybe you grab a nice journal to write in so you can look back for clues about what triggers you. Finding some accountability buddies who can hold you to your word about new behaviors can help, too. 

For Real Control and Effectiveness as a Leader, Learn to Pivot

These days, there are a million things that can create stress and worry for leaders, and it’s natural to have some negative thoughts and feelings crop up. But the problem with negative thoughts and feelings is that, if you don’t manage them properly, they can make you horribly inconsistent in what you do and decide. People need you to be a rock for them if they’re going to trust and follow you, so don’t wait to learn to take control. The sooner you master this agility process that pivots you away from undesirable ideas and emotions, the sooner you can reliably make positive, truth-based, and rational moves for yourself and everyone else.