Staying cool under pressure can be one of the tougher parts of leadership. Every day brings a constant flow of conflict, irritations, demands and uncertainty – plus the occasional cultural scoundrel who drives you crazy.
Some people are naturally less stressed by those challenges, but most of us can only take it so long before we feel like we’re going to explode.
What’s the secret to managing your emotional responses so you can lead with a cool head and a calm heart?
Neuroscience and behavioral research offer some useful insights and practical strategies for emotional regulation. I’ve picked three of my favorites to share with you here. You can use these techniques in common pressure-packed situations to help you keep your cool and think more clearly when you need it most.
But first, it all starts with self-awareness. This is a fundamental leadership skill. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your own moods, emotions and motivations, as well as their impact on others.
Strong self-awareness leads to greater emotional regulation and self-control, which makes a lot of sense. Until you can step back and see what’s going on in your mind, you’ll never effectively lead yourself, let alone other people.
Neuroscience research over the past 10-15 years has produced some compelling data that shows how much control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings and reactions. We’re not hostages to our emotions; we get to decide.
HOW YOUR BRAIN WORKS
It’s also helpful to have a basic understanding of how your brain works so you can see how to manage yourself better. Two key areas of the brain are involved in emotional regulation:
- Your prefrontal cortex, which is where your higher-level thinking, decision-making and understanding occurs; and
- Your limbic system, which constantly scans the environment to identify threats (lions, tornados and angry colleagues) and rewards (money, chocolate cake and love). Emotions are automatic responses to threats and rewards.
Interestingly, when your limbic system kicks in, it drains resources such as glucose and oxygen from other parts of your brain, making it much more difficult to think clearly when you are in an emotionally charged state. You might be ready to fight or flight, but not think!
Your ability to control your emotions is central to your effectiveness as a leader. So, here are three of my favorite strategies for staying cool under pressure.
Think of this as standing at the center of yourself and being fully aware and in control of what you are thinking and feeling. Mindfulness is closely related. Neuroscience research shows that people who are more centered enjoy greater thinking capacity and less emotional reactivity in times of stress.
And a compelling study by Bain found centeredness to be the most important attribute of inspirational leaders. You must be able to center yourself before you can use your leadership strengths effectively.
- Situation: Someone has disregarded your input in an important conversation. You feel disrespected.
- Application: Stop, take a deep breath and get grounded (sit or stand in a solid and settled position). Tell yourself you recognize how you are feeling and you want to control your reaction so it’s effective, not emotional. Once you can think more clearly, determine the right strategy for resolving the situation, such as bringing your input forward in another way and speaking privately with the individual about his or her behavior.
This is a basic cognitive strategy that simply involves putting your feelings into words. When a situation triggers you, calling out your emotion(s) actually minimizes your limbic system response. On the other hand, trying to hide what you’re feeling escalates your physical response, making it harder to think.
- Situation: You’ve just learned an important project has gone off the rails, and you know the consequences of it failing are great.
- Application: Calm yourself by saying what you’re feeling: “I’m frustrated” (or angry, confused, worried, etc.). If you can’t say it out loud, write it down, but get it out of your head. Once your limbic system is dampened, you can think more clearly and put a plan in place to pull the project out of the ditch and get it back on track.
When you can reinterpret a situation to see the benefits that could come from it, you exercise one of the most powerful cognitive strategies. Victor Frankl is a noted author, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. During World War II, his survival often depended on his ability to think about his situation in a very different manner. Later in life, he wrote, Man’s Search for Meaning, which includes a powerful principle built on reframing. He instructs readers to find a redemptive perspective on suffering and challenge, which is often based on our beliefs and recognizing that good can come as a result of bad experiences.
- Situation: Your budget has just been slashed for next year, but you’re still expected to deliver the same or better results.
- Application: After centering yourself and naming your emotions, sit down with a clear head and start thinking about the opportunities you and your team have for reinventing how you work. Could you restructure the team? Change the workflow? Meet with the team to brainstorm new ideas, products or services to test? Unexpected pressure can push you to reach new levels of performance, efficiency and innovation. Ahh, so there are actually many benefits from your budget getting cut. Who would have thought?!
There are many other techniques, and I’ll dig into more in another post. In the meantime, see if these three could help you stay cool under pressure so you can lead yourself and others more powerfully.
Please email me – email@example.com – with your strategies and success stories on staying cool. I would love to hear them. I promise to reply and will share some of them in another post if you’re willing.
P.S. Remember, you’re not a hostage to your emotions. You get to decide!
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