On the surface, these three people live worlds apart:
- Stefan works as a family practice nurse practitioner/manager in a busy urban clinic in the American Midwest.
- Angelique turned her talent for design into a thriving business using recycled textiles to create clothing she markets throughout southeast Asia.
- Avery directs a large non-profit organization focused on improving access to nutritious food in poor communities in northern England.
Beneath the surface, they’re closer than you’d think:
- Stefan’s grief about his marriage ending distracts him, making him less available to his patients and coworkers.
- Angelique can barely suppress feelings of rage whenever she sees email messages from a former supplier who is suing her.
- Avery’s intense anxiety about upcoming funding cuts leaks out as overly critical interactions with staff members.
In different industries, on different continents, these three leaders have this in common: their inability to manage distressing emotions hurts their effectiveness at work. They each lack emotional self-control, one of twelve core competencies in our model of emotional and social intelligence.
What is Emotional Self-Control?
Emotional self-control is the ability to manage disturbing emotions and remain effective, even in stressful situations. Notice that I said “manage,” which is different from suppressing emotions. We need our positive feelings—that’s what makes life rich. But we also need to allow ourselves the space and time to process difficult emotions, but context matters. It’s one thing to do it in a heartfelt conversation with a good friend, and entirely another to release your anger or frustration at work. With emotional self-control, you can manage destabilizing emotions, staying calm and clear-headed.
Why Does Emotional Self-Control Matter?
To understand the importance of emotional self-control, it helps to know what’s going on in our brain when we’re not in control. In my book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, I explained:
“The amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. Our brain was designed as a tool for survival. In the brain’s blueprint the amygdala holds a privileged position. If the amygdala detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of the brain—particularly the prefrontal cortex—and we have what’s called an amygdala hijack.
During a hijack, we can’t learn, and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. We can’t innovate or be flexible during a hijack.
The hijack captures our attention, beaming it in on the threat at hand. If you’re at work when you have an amygdala hijack, you can’t focus on what your job demands—you can only think about what’s troubling you. Our memory shuffles, too, so that we remember most readily what’s relevant to the threat—but can’t remember other things so well. During a hijack, we can’t learn, and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. We can’t innovate or be flexible during a hijack.
… the amygdala often makes mistakes…. while the amygdala gets its data on what we see and hear in a single neuron from the eye and ear—that’s super-fast in brain time—it only receives a small fraction of the signals those senses receive. The vast majority goes to other parts of the brain that take longer to analyze these inputs—and get a more accurate reading. The amygdala, in contrast, gets a sloppy picture and has to react instantly. It often makes mistakes, particularly in modern life, where the ‘dangers’ are symbolic, not physical threats. So, we overreact in ways we often regret later.”
The Impact of Distressed Leaders
Research across the world and many industries confirms the importance of leaders managing their emotions. Australian researchers found that leaders who manage emotions well had better business outcomes. Other research shows that employees remember most vividly negative encounters they’ve had with a boss. And, after negative interactions, they felt demoralized and didn’t want to have anything more to do with that boss.
How to Develop Emotional Self-Control
How can we minimize emotional hijacks? First, we need to use another emotional intelligence competency, emotional self-awareness. That starts with paying attention to our inner signals—an application of mindfulness, which lets us see our destructive emotions as they start to build, not just when our amygdala hijacks us.
If you can recognize familiar sensations that a hijack is beginning—your shoulders tense up or your stomach churns—it is easier to stop it.
If you don’t notice your amygdala has hijacked the more rational part of your brain, it’s hard to regain emotional equilibrium until the hijack runs its course. It’s better to stop it before it gets too far. To end a hijack, start with mindfulness, monitoring what’s going on in your mind. Notice “I’m really upset now” or “I’m starting to get upset.” If you can recognize familiar sensations that a hijack is beginning—your shoulders tense up or your stomach churns—it is easier to stop it.
Then, you can try a cognitive approach: talk yourself out of it, reason with yourself. Or you can intervene biologically. Meditation or relaxation techniques that calm your body and mind—such as deep belly breathing—are very helpful. As with mindfulness, these work best during the hijack when you have practiced them regularly. Unless these methods have become a strong habit of the mind, you can’t invoke them out of the blue.