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Emotionally Wise
CTDO Magazine

Emotionally Wise

Monday, September 16, 2019

Top execs develop emotional intelligence skills to improve their relationships and make smart decisions.

Imagine this: You enter the boardroom feeling calm, focused on the challenging meeting ahead of you, despite having just received an alarming text from your teenage son. Now imagine you receive final signatures for a major contract just minutes before you have to deliver news of a demotion to a member of your team. Finally, think about this: You successfully navigate a disastrous service failure with an important client right after being informed that you'll have to work overtime during the holidays.


At first glance, those situations reflect the common belief that we can check our emotions at the door in the workplace. Even though the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) has been around for more than 25 years, many professionals believe individuals can shut off emotions like a faucet when they walk into the office or log into email and that it's even desirable, given the perception that emotions are a hindrance to our performance. Business is better served cold.

Here's the reality: Emotions affect attention, memory and learning, decision making, relationship quality, mental and physical health, creativity, and overall performance.

What's more, the pursuit of an emotion-free workplace is a mirage, one that can undermine employees' performance every day. Each of us, consciously or not, experiences hundreds of emotions each day, from the moment we walk into the office until we leave. Imagining that success in the workplace requires denying the existence of emotions is no more realistic than imagining that a driver can reach his destination by ignoring the weather, traffic, and time of day.

Top executives aren't successful because they eliminate or ignore their emotions. Instead, they use their emotions wisely. Specifically, they employ EI skills: They recognize the reality of their emotional state and then regulate those feelings to achieve their goals. These individuals view their emotions as a tool for optimizing performance, rather than as a liability to be neutralized.

Case in point

Take Laura, a regional talent development manager, who feels her anxiety grow as she grapples with her stressful workload. She has five performance reviews due this week. Plus, she has to prepare a custom workshop that she's leading the next day. Panic is setting in, making it difficult to focus on the work ahead of her. Laura tries to finalize the workshop outline, but she can tell that she's not doing her best thinking. Instead, she spends time on nonessential (but less stressful) email and administrative tasks. Even then, she's feeling tense and is having a hard time sitting still.

Laura's emotions have changed how she thinks (she can't muster her best thinking), how she feels (increased heart rate, cortisol release, perspiration), and how she behaves (highly active when she needs to sit down and focus). Her emotional response is fighting against her performance.

If Laura pretends that she isn't approaching a state of panic, what are her chances for meeting her deadlines and doing great work? Instead, she needs to recognize her emotional state and then shape her responses to help her perform. Laura needs to improve her EI skills; everyone can build these over time:

  • Recognition—the ability to recognize what you are feeling, label it accurately, and determine its root cause.
  • Regulation—the ability to identify what emotion best fits your objectives and then use straightforward techniques to reach that emotional goal.
  • Co-regulation—the ability to express and regulate your emotions in a way that supports other people as they recognize and regulate their own emotions.

Acquiring and refining these skills takes time, improving over months and years like any life skill. That said, there are some hacks that can help you put these skills to work right now.

Identify the causes of the emotions

Recognizing the underlying causes for your emotions can be the key that unlocks your ability to perform at a higher level. Hector, a recruiting manager, says, "I make regular presentations to our executive team, and often things go badly. They ask tough questions, and I get defensive. Once, an exec even asked my manager if I had anger management issues."

In that case, it turns out that Hector identifies his primary emotion as fear, driven by his recent arrival to the company and his concern that his relationship with the executive team is tenuous. Looking more deeply, he realizes that his underlying concern is that he could be fired. As Hector says, "Once I understood that I was responding to difficult questions as if my job was on the line, I became way more relaxed. It was obvious to me that I was overreacting to questions that were totally reasonable." Score a point for recognizing emotions.

If Hector can recognize his feelings and identify their cause, he'll be better able to turn those meetings into positive conversations. He sorts through possible feelings like anxiety, anger, frustration, fear, and impatience. He can use tools such as the Mood Meter App to identify his emotional energy and pleasantness, which helps him effectively label what he is experiencing. A program like the Emotion Life Lab can help him improve over time by providing a place to practice the skills of recognition and regulation, receive a coach's support, and reflect on the strategies that work in different scenarios.

Practice thinking and action strategies

Consider the scenarios at the beginning of the article. In the boardroom scenario, you need to shift from anxiety to calm concentration; in the second, you need to shift from anger to empathy. In the third scenario, you need to regulate from one positive emotion (excitement) to another (quietly supportive). Regulation isn't just about going from unpleasant to pleasant; it's about optimizing your emotional state for the situation.

Building a toolkit around the emotional regulation starts with augmenting thinking strategies and action strategies. Effective thinking strategies disrupt negative self-talk, rumination, catastrophizing, self-doubt, and other patterns that cause us to hold on to unwanted, unpleasant emotions. Try one of these three approaches the next time you feel stuck in a negative loop:

  • Reframe the situation. Consider other perspectives on the event or circumstance; how could others be feeling? What could be the cause of their feelings?
  • Use positive self-talk. When you catch yourself thinking something negative about yourself, pump yourself up instead. Try phrases like "I've got this!" or "I'm ready!" 
  • Visualize your best self. Name three qualities that characterize you at your best and write them down. Later, when you find yourself emotionally activated with feelings such as anger, disappointment, or fear, recall those qualities and work to embody them.

Action strategies shift emotion by moving your body or changing something about your physical environment. To boost energy before delivering a presentation, you could listen to music, exercise, or eat a healthy snack. To downshift from an excess of energy or move to a more pleasant state, take a conscious breath, make a cup of tea, close your eyes, or take a walk outside.

Work is saturated with emotion. EI can be a huge asset as you harness a calm state.

Considering Laura's situation, given her training in EI skills, she is quick to recognize that she's feeling anxiety, driven by her concern that her crazy workload could lead to long hours that would interfere with her family obligations and affect her performance in the workshop. These anxious feelings cause her to ruminate about things she can't control. So, Laura deploys several regulation techniques. She takes a 15-minute walk, calls her husband for support, and reframes her outlook to acknowledge that she's a star performer that is highly valued within the organization. This enables her to shift into a focused mindset that brings out her best work and makes the hectic week more manageable. She also finds that she can now sit down and finish that outline.

Co-regulate to optimize performance

Once you've regulated your emotions, you can work to co-regulate with other people, helping them harness their emotions to achieve desired outcomes. Said another way: Emotions are contagious.

When you go into a meeting, would you want others to catch what you are feeling? If not, take the opportunity to use a regulation strategy to shift to the emotion that will set the right tone and help you realize the goals you set for the meeting. Once you have shifted to a more favorable emotional place, it's possible that others in the room will shift there too. When that happens, the conditions for creativity, collaboration, and connection are optimized for peak performance.

Go-to strategies

Work is saturated with emotion. EI can be a huge asset as you harness a calm state when helping colleagues settle a dispute, manage frustration when pushing a lagging vendor, and generate excitement when addressing a crowd. Emotions and EI are among your most potent tools in getting things done.

As is typically the case when acquiring new skill sets, the real work is all about practice (and more practice). Over time, you can gain insight about your emotional responses and the context in which they occur and develop a list of go-to strategies that work for you. You'll find that once you embrace an emotions matter mindset, you can learn the skills quickly. And you're not the only person who will benefit—your colleagues (and family) will see the difference and may even join you.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Marc Brackett is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor in Yale University’s Child Study Center.

About the Author

Andrea Hoban is co-founder and chief learning officer at Oji Life Lab.

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