A Split-Second Strategy to Better Manage Your Emotional Response as a Leader

A leader snaps at a team-member then remember to reappraise her emotions. “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”-Buddha

At one time or another, all leaders experience strong negative emotions—irritation, discouragement, frustration, and even anger. We all know how disturbing it can be to lose control over negative emotions, even if only for a moment because a lot of damage can occur in that moment.

How you handle these emotions can be a make a huge difference in the success of your team. Most of us have probably experienced working with an irritable supervisor or touchy coworker and it can be distracting and draining! Let’s consider a few common ways of handling negative emotions, and examine what modern research tells us about how a 21-century leader can best manage her emotions. 

Express or Suppress?

The history of conventional wisdom in regard to managing negative emotions is a long and interesting one. But one aspect of this multigenerational discussion seems to continually resurface: Should we express or suppress our negative emotions?

For much of history, popular wisdom held that one should never express negative feelings and that doing so could only be harmful. However, during the mid-20th century, there was a major shift among many influential psychologists. They contended that strong negative emotions should be expressed. The thinking was that if these negative emotions went unexpressed (anger in particular), it could cause ulcers, heart attacks, headaches, etc, as well as wreaking havoc on human relationships. 

So, where do we stand now? 

How should leaders respond to a negative incident? Should a leader master her frustration, put on a fake smile, and not discuss the problem? Or should she honestly and fully express her feelings? Which one of these is going to work best?

As it turns out, neither strategy is truly effective. 

Completely suppressing negative emotions has led to a whole host of negative consequences—fewer close relationships, less social support, and lower life satisfaction. Suppressing our negative emotions also elevates other people’s stress response. The problem with this strategy is that it essentially says, “Ignore the problem until it goes away,” but instead of going away the emotions fester. 

What about fully expressing one’s anger? Since suppression can be so harmful it would seem like the other extreme, expression, could work. However, fully expressing the frustration you’re feeling in the moment can destroy the trust you’ve built with your team. What’s more, instead of bringing you relief, expressing your negative emotions often leads to only more negative emotions. 

Quickly Reappraise Your Viewpoint

Modern research is pointing to a different way of dealing with negative emotions—reappraisal. Reappraisal is the re-framing of a problem where one focuses attention on the problem’s root. Instead of viewing a problem as a threat, which decreases performance and motivation, it’s viewed as a challenge. 

Reappraisal works so well because it is a way of redirecting negative emotions instead of trying to stifle or encourage them. It can be helpful to take deep breaths and let the negative emotion wash over you, then redirect your focus towards the challenge. 

For example, suppose you are driving down the freeway when another driver cuts you off trying to make their exit. Immediately, you feel a swell of anger overtake you. Now you have a couple of options—let the situation ruin your day or try to reappraise it. Instead of labeling the person as a reckless driver, perhaps she was late for work and worried about upsetting her boss, or maybe the woman was driving someone to the hospital. 

Notice that it was a slip-second decision to reappraise the scenario. The original appraisal was involuntary—that person is a reckless driver. Whereas the reappraisal, or re-judging of the situation in a more neutral or positive direction, took a concerted effort as well as strong awareness. Studies have shown that this small effort can alter one’s subjective emotional experience very quickly.

This reappraisal strategy is priceless for those of us that are leaders. The complexity of executive leadership, especially when combined with the modern entrepreneurial spirit can be both rewarding and challenging. Leaders need to be able to handle negative emotions in a constructive way. 

So the next time you feel a spark of anger towards your bumbling colleague, try to reappraise the situation. You just might be saving yourself a world of hurt. 

Exceptional leadership isn’t accidental. One-on-one coaching is the fastest way to get the training, support, and accountability you need to focus on your growth as a leader. If you’re ready to lead with intention, integrity and in alignment with your purpose, please fill out the questionnaire on my Coaching for Executives page.


Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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