April 29, 2021
My “A-Ha” Moment
Earlier in my career as an HR leader, I was not always aware of how closely leaders are watched by their teams – and how the teams make inferences from seemingly innocuous behaviors and actions. I had an “a-ha moment” when a member of my team shared that, when I hurried from my office with a furrowed brow, the team felt anxious, wondered what was happening and speculated that something must be causing my stress: possible impending layoffs, dire problems within the company or something worse. When, in fact, I was just stressed, running from meeting to meeting – always a few minutes behind schedule. It made me realize I was sending unintentional (and erroneous!) messages, all based on how I was managing myself.
As a leader, managing yourself is a critical skill – it impacts the level of confidence members of your team and the organization feel about the current state of the business and the organization’s future stability. To illustrate an example of the organizational effects of a lack of self-management in leadership, I’ll share a client story.
Nathan* was the newly appointed CEO of a company implementing a large-scale transformation. He did not mask stress and impatience well, and it would often show up in his body language and facial expressions. Nathan did not fully understand that, as the CEO, his emotions were manifesting in his physical presence and were conveying unintended negative messages about the health of the business. And employees were watching his every move. When he walked through the office, stressed and tired after battling heavy traffic during his commute, employees observed him and often assumed the worst. The rumor mill – alive and well in most organizations – might interpret his frown as an indictment of the progress of the transformation. Nathan also did not place a high value on interactions with employees: he had a strong introversion tendency and underestimated the effect he had on the company’s employees. There were so few interactions with Nathan that one instance of negative tone of voice, unapproachable body language, or cross facial expression carried a heightened level of meaning for employees.
As his executive coach, I helped him develop a sense of self-awareness so he could see how others in the organization viewed him based on his inadvertent stress response. We also implemented a multi-faceted communication plan focused on providing direction and building trust at all levels in the organization. With practice, Nathan was able to more purposefully manage his stress, his body language and facial expressions, thereby creating a positive environment where employees felt secure and focused on the organizational objectives.
*name changed for confidentiality
Managing Yourself is a Learned Skill
In our previous newsletter, we discussed the importance of knowing yourself – becoming more self-aware by identifying your values, strengths, weaknesses, and impact on others. The next step in growing your emotional intelligence is learning to manage yourself. Managing yourself is being intentional about how you respond to stress and appear to others. In business, communication is more than words; observers listen to the pitch and tone of your voice and observe your body language. In times of stress, your team is watching you closely for cues to unspoken messages. They are trying to discern how much they should worry about the business, their projects, their jobs, etc.
To begin developing self-regulation, first notice your body’s somatic responses to stress. The physical symptoms of stress can be felt as an elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, headache, tightness of the jaw or in the chest, restlessness, difficulty concentrating or trouble sleeping. Once you’ve identified your stress response, you can focus energy on reducing the physical effects. Take deep breaths, take a short break or go for a walk – grant yourself a pause before engaging in any activity that would cause further stress like firing off an angry email or having a difficult conversation with a team member.
Like developing true self-awareness, managing yourself requires intention and practice. Through practice, you will reduce your physical symptoms of stress, allowing for more clarity and energy in how you respond to a stressful event.
Here are my top five tips to get you started on the hard work of improving your self-regulation:
- Become familiar with your somatic responses. Pay attention to how your body physically responds in situations. When you are feeling stressed, employ a time-out or cool-down period before responding or interacting with others.
- Be intentional. Understand your first reaction to situations – did the stressful event trigger a fight or flight response? Do you become argumentative, defensive, or paralyzed? Evaluate your natural response – is this how you want others to view you? If not, work to intentionally control your response to be sure that what you say and how you say it communicate your intended message.
- Expand your emotional vocabulary. Invest time in explaining your emotions to yourself and others by drawing on a diversity of words that express emotions. Create a list of adjectives to describe both when your needs are satisfied and when they aren’t. Move beyond labeling your emotions as “upset,” “angry,” or “sad” and explore words like “distant,” “critical’” “humiliated,” “vulnerable,” “threatened,” and “disappointed.” Using words to better describe your emotions will translate into a more accurate response to the stressful situation.
- Learn to say no to yourself. Break the pattern of an undesired behavior such as sending an email when frustrated. Document the problem and create “I don’t” and “I will” statements. “I don’t send emails when I am stressed or upset” and “I will use a calming technique such as a 5-minute breathing activity before sending an email.” By planning for your desired behavior, you will be more likely to act on it during times of stress.
- Monitor your self-talk. Being tough on yourself needs to be balanced with self-compassion. Celebrate your wins, forgive your losses. If you allow space in your mind for negative self-talk, it will affect your body language and how others view you. Notice the negative thought, and then release it.
Emotions serve many purposes. As we look over the past year, it is remarkable to see how much of our world has been governed by the things we cannot control. Common stressors have been amplified – turning already challenging activities into daily feats of strength and endurance. By focusing energy on how you manage yourself, you will become in tune with your thresholds for stress and better equipped to respond with intention in the face of difficulties. Bon courage!