In leadership positions it’s inevitable that situations arise that generate an emotional reaction. Some emotions are low grade but others are like five-alarm fires. We are taught to control our emotions in the workplace to be credible, strong and unshakable. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “There’s no place for feelings at work.” The emotionless approach is a badge of honor but it may hinder your leadership effectiveness. Here’s why.
Let’s say you are working with an employee to change the way their approach to management of a project. You’ve discussed it again and again. You think they understand then, out of the blue, they use the old approach. It isn’t a deal breaker for the project but it annoys you. How many times do you have to discuss this?
At that moment, the amygdala in your brain (your alarm bell) has gone off. They amygdala calls on long-term memory that confirms the many times you counseled the employee on this topic. The amygdala sends the alert that something has gone awry and it triggers an emotional reaction.
As the leader, you know that you don’t want to yell, stomp your feet or behave inappropriately. So what are your options?
Suppress your reaction. You fight the emotional reaction by reasoning with yourself. “I’m not going to let this get to me. It isn’t worth getting upset about. Don’t think about it. Let it go.” Have you noticed that the more you say, “I’m not going to think about this” the more you think about it? Exactly. Research validates that the harder you think about suppressing the emotion the more engaged the amygdala is. Suppression does not reduce the brain’s reactivity. Further, the energy you expend to suppress the reaction takes away the energy you need for memory. You are less effective due to the lack of resources for cognitive functioning of your brain.
Clearly, this doesn’t work so what does?
Consider the emotion. Thinking about emotional suppression doesn’t work but consciously examining your feelings does. Research shows that people who probe their feelings actually deactivate the amygdala. I know – it seems counterintuitive. But when you hold your emotion up to the light, roll it around, and give it a name, it validates the emotion and calms the amygdala. An added bonus is that the cognitive part of your brain remains online. Your memory is not impaired and you can more objectively view the situation and your options.
Reframe the situation. You can also reframe or reappraise the situation. In my experience, this works best after you name the emotion and calm the amygdala somewhat. Then you ask, “Is there another way of looking at this?” Your brain brings up the stored memory and context. However, just because you remember it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or exclusive. In this instance, perhaps the employee believed the situation was different and, therefore, warranted an altered approach. Or perhaps the employee is going through a difficult personal situation and their cognitive ability (and memory) is impaired. What are the other possibilities? Reframing the situation calms the amygdala and brings cognitive consideration to the situation.
When those emotional situations hit – stop trying to suppress the emotion. It only makes it worse. Instead, acknowledge the emotion, name it and ask if there are other ways to look at the situation. You will find yourself with a calmer frame of mind which enables you to choose the best response…the response worthy of a leader.