How to develop emotional regulation skills to become a better manager

July 28, 2021 - 16 min read

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Let yourself feel

Be mindful of triggers

Don't ruminate

Emotional regulation skills can help you grow

Work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s natural for our moods or personal lives to affect our performance. You might feel pressure to compartmentalize your feelings in the workplace, but that’s not realistic.

“People are not isolated ‘emotional islands,’” says Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Rather, they bring all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods, and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions influence others.”

Recognizing that emotions play an inevitable role in your work life helps you embrace them to grow both personally and professionally. This is especially important as a manager — emotions are contagious, after all. When you don't feel your best and let those emotions run wild, it can bring down your colleagues and team members.

For any manager, the ability to regulate emotions is a must. And to develop emotional regulation skills, you must acknowledge your feelings and recognize their powerful impact on workplace productivity (while still striving to move past them).

Let yourself feel

Letting yourself feel is essential to putting your emotions behind you and moving forward. "Processing and experiencing your feelings is part of having a full life," says Jennifer Rollin in Psychology Today. Accepting your emotions can help you keep control over them and thrive at work and in your personal life.

When you repress negative emotions, your ability to experience positive emotions like joy and happiness gets numbed, too—you can't selectively avoid feelings. Rather than trying to wall out the inevitable stressful feelings of the job (and, as a result, also numb yourself to the good), you need to regulate your emotions to feel them both in a balanced way. You can learn a lot about yourself, your team, and the work you do by noticing your emotional reactions and reflecting on why you feel the way you do

Moreover, suppressing emotions can affect your health in the long run. The fact is, all feelings are temporary—nothing lasts forever, so if you're feeling a negative emotion, remember that it will pass.

So how can you develop emotional regulation skills that help you remain calm under stress? Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist, coined the term "name it to tame it." He says that when you notice yourself having a strong emotional reaction, your brain releases stress hormones into your body. But describing what you're feeling (naming it) to yourself or out loud can kickstart the rational side of the brain and ground your emotions.

Once you've named the emotion, calmly observe it, giving your brain time to process the feelings and filter them. Practicing this can prevent your emotions from overwhelming you and dictating your reactions. In the long run, this simple tool can build your capacity to handle intense emotions at work and not let it impact your productivity or managerial decisions.

Other emotional regulation skills that can help when you're stressed or you catch yourself in negative thinking include:

  • Write a (positive) mantra. Mantras have healing powers, and their positive effects have been known to some cultures for centuries. In a recent study, participants who chanted the mantra “om” found that it helped reduce stress and anxiety, increase attention, improve positive moods, and foster feelings of social cohesion — all of which can help you be a better manager.

  • Practice a breathing technique. When we’re stressed or anxious, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. But deep breathing is key to lowering stress in your body. Try different breathing techniques to see which helps the best to calm your brain during high-stress situations.
  • Keep positive affirmations/reminders where you work. Like life, work has highs and lows, too. Keeping positive affirmations at work can serve as a reminder of your potential and boost your morale to perform at your best.

Be mindful of triggers

Knowing your triggers is key to having control over your emotions. And triggers vary from person to person—it can be anything, from memories, sensory stimuli, and experiences to events. Often, uncomfortable or unpleasant situations can turn into triggers, such as getting passed over for a promotion, stress, a breakup, loneliness, or losing a loved one.

When we feel threatened or afraid, our brain's hardwired to react. "Knee-jerk reactions can lead to adverse outcomes. If you've raised your voice, snapped at a colleague, or hammered away an angry Slack message, you've experienced how challenging regulating your emotions can be," says RC Victorino, the former head of content at Slab. "Our need to react is a primal response that occurs when our amygdala, which regulates fight or flight, is triggered."

Being mindful of triggers can help you separate valid reactions from overreactions. The following guidelines can help you develop emotional regulation skills to maintain a reasonable perspective, even under stress:

  • Accept that something upset you. As we said above, dismissing emotions isn't going to help resolve the feelings. Doing so can prolong or amplify the feeling. Accepting your reaction can give you control over your emotions.
  • Try to identify the source of the problem. Trace your emotions back to the root of the problem. Identifying the cause is important because our thoughts aren't always facts. For example, when your boss sends a vague email, our amygdala might react as though the world's about to end. When that happens, it's important to look around us and identify the facts. Is this email going to make or break your career? No. Did we receive a vague email? Yes. An email can be stressful, but it's important to remind your brain not to overreact.
  • Know that it's okay to feel the way you do. Permit yourself to experience emotions—it's okay to feel the way you do. When you're under stress, you might feel like you're not doing a great job as a manager, but you got this far on your merit. It's okay to feel stressed, but try not to let one situation define your capabilities. Remember, your experience is unique to you; your feelings are a part of your truth. Practicing self-compassion can stop your emotions from overwhelming you and also help tone down intense emotions.
  • Step back from the trigger. When the fight or flight response is in play, you might feel the urge to act. But the action may not necessarily be thought through clearly. Taking some space from what triggered you in the first place can help you make level-headed decisions as a manager.
  • Communicate your boundaries. Also, ask others about theirs. Boundaries are different for everyone, and considering that most employees bring their whole selves to work, conflicts are bound to happen. Suppose you were triggered because someone crossed a line that made you uncomfortable; communicate that honestly and tactfully, so it's not repeated. Doing so can help others know you better and help you build stronger relationships.

Don't ruminate

Although reflecting can help you find better insight into a problem, ruminating isn't necessarily healthy. Research shows that dwelling on an issue can exacerbate it and increase the stress your feeling.

Ruminating, according to Medical News Today, refers to "excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings."

Moreover, ruminating about work-related issues can affect your productivity, too. Think about it: when you've maxed out your brain's capacity, is there enough room in there to think about other essential tasks?

San Diego-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Lauren Feiner, suggests the following emotional regulation skills to stop rumination:

  • Practice mindfulness. Let your thoughts pass. As we said before, your thoughts aren't always facts. Mindfulness is beneficial when you don't have control over a situation—it's scientifically proven to improve cognition, reduce anxiety, and prevent depression.
  • Ask yourself the right questions to approach the issue with clarity. Questions can help you gain perspective and take appropriate action to solve the problem. For example, ask yourself, "what's the worst-case scenario?" and "can I handle that?" You might even learn that the problem isn't as big as you initially thought.
  • Distract yourself. If you've already done everything in your power to address the issue, it's now beyond your control. At this point, distracting yourself with other activities of interest can keep your brain engaged. Moreover, distraction can give you much-needed distance from the problem and maybe even help you find a new solution. Exercise, art therapy, and yoga are all great activities that can interrupt your rumination and help you feel better.

Emotional regulation skills can help you grow personally and professionally

Taking care of your emotions and brain can help you lead a healthy, fulfilling life. But, let's also dispel any ideas that emotions in the workplace slow down business. Developing emotional regulation skills can improve your productivity, job satisfaction, and engagement level with the organization. When you're at your best, your team can be too.

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Published July 28, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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