In an earlier column, I wrote about emotional contagion (when the emotions of one person influence those of others). At the end of that column, I mentioned that leaders should develop the ability to regulate their emotions, which is this month’s topic.
Emotional regulation is the ability to influence what emotions we experience, when we experience them, and how we express them. In addition to the leadership advantages of emotional regulation, there are other benefits. Emotional regulation generally leads to fewer negative emotions (fear, anxiety, anger, etc.) and more positive emotions (joy, happiness, satisfaction and the like). Positive emotions promote a number of benefits, including improved well-being, better focus, improved thinking and generally better health. Emotional regulation is also a component of emotional intelligence, which is related to a number of positive outcomes such as job performance and improved social relationships. Finally, the ability to manage your emotions makes you more resilient, making you better able to handle life’s curveballs.
It’s important to understand that emotional regulation is not the absence of emotions; it is the ability to manage your emotions. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be an emotional zombie. I like feeling emotions, I just don’t want to be controlled by them. I want to manage my emotions, not be managed by them.
We can think of emotions as an input-output model. The inputs are cues that trigger emotions, which in turn lead to emotional responses. To regulate our emotions, we can focus on the triggers or the responses. One way to deal with emotional triggers is to avoid situations that are likely to trigger undesired emotions. For example, during the playoffs, I avoid watching my St. Louis Cardinals (assuming they’re in the playoffs, which is usually the case). I just can’t stay calm watching important games, so I don’t watch. Seems silly, I know, but it works for me.
You can also modify a situation that becomes emotionally charged. For example, call for a break when a meeting gets heated. Another strategy is to focus on a non-emotional aspect of a situation. When the sad part of Terms of Endearment comes on, shift your focus to whether your ceiling fan needs dusting.
There are also response-focused strategies. You can reappraise a situation in a way that lowers the emotional impact. If someone insults you, rather than getting angry, you can ask yourself whether you value the insulter’s opinion. If not, who cares what they think? If so, then maybe they have a point.
Suppression, or consciously inhibiting your emotional response, is another option; keep calm when you’re actually angry. Humor is often a good reframing strategy. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said when he learned of someone talking smack about him, “He obviously doesn’t know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned.”
Another useful strategy is cognitive change, which is selecting which of many possible meanings you attach to a situation. You can take an idle comment as an insult (and get angry) or as a worthless idle comment (and let it slide).
For me, the best overall strategy is to consider how much control you have over a situation. (This is another tip from the Stoics.) In any situation, there’s a continuum from having no control or having total control. When you have no control, there’s no point in becoming worried, anxious or angry. When you have total control, direct your energies to taking control. When you have some control, focus on the aspects of the situation you can control rather than stressing over what you can’t control. This simple strategy can help you navigate very tough times; I know this from personal experience. Just as a baseball player takes batting practice before a game, I recommend practicing emotional regulation strategies before you face a really trying situation. Over time, you can develop habits of thinking that will serve you well when managing your emotions. Practice emotional regulation and you’ll be able to turn the curveballs of life into solid base hits. FBN
Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D. is the dean of the W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University.
The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to approximately 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.