Emotional Self-Management Is a Critical Leadership Skill

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2007

There was a time when leaders were encouraged to “say what you feel.” Good thing it was a passing fad. The truth is that leaders need to monitor and manage their feelings so that they can effectively respond rather than react to events.

For better or worse, leaders must accept that they are always on stage. Leaders frequently underestimate the impact of their words, emotional reactions and deeds. Employees, especially, tend to interpret a leader’s actions in more extreme terms than the leader imagines. As I once heard someone say: "When the CEO sneezes, the whole company catches a cold."

For example, I conducted a developmental assessment for a CEO of a bio-tech company who asked me to help him raise the bar on his performance. I interviewed a wide range of people to get a good sense of his strengths and developmental needs. I discovered that the receptionist thought he was “moody” and telegraphed through the organization her interpretation of the CEO’s mood soon after he entered the building each day. “He’s in a bad mood today… watch out!” Unfortunately, she was more often wrong than right. He was introverted and when he arrived in the morning he would often be in deep thought and when in deep thought he didn’t smile. He was not in a bad mood. Trusting the receptionist’s news report, some staff would steer clear of the CEO if they could. Not a great way to facilitate rapid communication and problem solving if people end up avoiding the boss! After learning about this early warning system, the CEO changed how he began his day at work. He realized that he needed to enter the building like he was walking on stage.

All of us can cite well-known leaders who have a reputation for screaming and humiliating people. They think they need to do that to “motivate” them. Some of those executives don’t even have a rationale for their behavior - they just react. Talented people will only put up with that type of behavior for a very limited time before quitting. Individuals who end up staying with bullies tend to be those who are insecure and/or less competent. They think they have few options and stay out of fear. This is not a recipe for creating a high performing vibrant workplace.

I’m not suggesting that you become an unfeeling and unemotional individual like Spock from Star Trek. I’m suggesting that you develop sufficient self-awareness to know when you are in certain moods, in particularly, anger and anxiety, so that you can step back, take care of yourself, and then respond in a more effective manner.

Below are constructive steps you can take to manage your emotions more effectively:

Keep a journal and note when you get upset, the circumstances surrounding the event and your thoughts and conclusions about what happened. Over time, look for patterns in your reactions. Identify your hot buttons – what consistently sets you off. It’s important to understand that your reactions are primarily the result of your interpretations of what happened. People react differently to the same things based on how they interpret what has happened. Therefore, learn to question your immediate conclusions. Look for alternative explanations rather than settle for your first automatic thoughts. Then plan your responses.

Learn and practice the following technique. It uses a mnemonic tool to help you remember it while under stress:

Stop Light method

Red light: Stop, calm down, and think before you act
Yellow light: Say the problem and how you feel to yourself. Set a positive goal – what you want to accomplish. Think ahead to the consequences. Think of lots of different solutions to reach the goal.
Green light: Go ahead and try the best plan.

Lastly, before reacting or responding, consider asking a trusted advisor what they think of the situation. You may be surprised that he or she may both interpret what happened differently and will suggest alternative ways to deal with it. Sometimes hearing another perspective can alter our emotional reaction enough that we can then think of more effective ways to respond.