dr carl robinson
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The Currency of Success - Interpersonal Intelligence™

Emotional Self-Management for Leaders: a Mission Critical Skill

There was a time when leaders were encouraged to “say what they felt.” The truth is, however, that leaders need to monitor and manage their feelings so that they can effectively respond rather than react. That’s why the “say what you feel” mentality has–thankfully–gone the way of the dodo bird.

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 a leader may imagine. As I once heard someone say: “When the CEO sneezes, the whole company catches a cold.”

Managing yourself as a leader

Years ago, I conducted a developmental assessment for a CEO of a biotech 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.

But the CEO was simply introverted and, when he arrived in the morning, he would often be in deep thought, which meant he wasn’t smiling. Trusting the receptionist’s news report, however, staff would steer clear of the CEO if they could. After learning about this early warning system, the CEO realized he needed to put the right foot (and face) forward when he came to work each day.

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 bully-type “leaders” tend to be those who are insecure and/or less competent. They think they have few options and stay out of fear, while more skilled and confident employees head straight for the door. This is not a recipe for creating a high-performing, skilled, vibrant workplace.

But to create this sort of workplace environment within your organization, I’m not suggesting that you become like Spock from Star Trek. Instead, I’m suggesting that you develop sufficient self-awareness to know when you are in certain moods.

Emotional intelligence is key

Leaders should know when their mood is shifting, particularly when it is approaching anger and anxiety so that they can take a step back, take care of themselves, and respond in a more effective manner.

To manage your emotions more effectively, one of the most simple tools you can utilize is a journal. In your (preferably daily) journal, note when you get upset, the circumstances surrounding the event, your thoughts and conclusions about what happened. Over time, look for patterns in your reactions. Identify what consistently sets you off and learn to question your immediate conclusions. Look for alternative explanations rather than settle for your first thoughts. Then, plan your responses to common “triggers” accordingly.

To help you plan your responses to certain scenarios, I also recommend the Stop Light Method.

The Stop Light Method

The Stop Light Method is a mnemonic (memory aid) tool that makes it easy for you to recall during times of stress. When you hit a point in your day where something has thrown you into a reactive emotion (stress, anger, etc.), remember:

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, or what you want to accomplish. Think ahead to the consequences. Think of different solutions to reach the goal.

Green light: Try the best plan of action.

Before reacting or responding in these situations, you should also consider asking a trusted advisor about their opinion on the situation. You may be surprised that he or she may both interpret what happened differently — and he or she may suggest alternative plans of action you hadn’t even considered. Sometimes hearing another perspective can alter our emotional reaction enough that we can think of more effective ways to respond.

Of course, handling your emotions as a leader has a long learning curve; you’re not going to get it right on the first try. But continually trying to master your emotions will make you a better leader and the results will be far-reaching.