leadership tips managing emotions

Frustrated or Focused – Leadership Tips for Managing Emotions

“David, I know I shouldn’t take this personally, but I’m so frustrated and I just want to yell at my team and walk away. I need help managing emotions or I’m going to have a meltdown.”

Amanda is a team leader for an international clothing producer. She loves her work, finds it inspiring, and she cares deeply about her people and the quality work they do. Like many leaders, however, her passion has turned to frustration as she struggles with managing emotions.

Leadership is challenging. Things never go exactly according to plan, disappointments creep up where you don’t expect them, and people can be erratic. Leading means you’ve got to deal with the human element.

If you’re going to succeed over time and achieve breakthrough results that last, you can’t walk around stressed out and frustrated all the time. You’ll break down or you’ll lash out at your team. Either way, your credibility suffers.

6 Steps for Managing Emotions

Recently one of our workshop participants mentioned a manager who said, “I’m here to manage results, not manage emotions.” Frankly, I think that statement is naïve, dangerous, and self-sabotaging. Managing emotions, starting with your own, is a critical leadership skill. Here are six ways to help you stay grounded and manage your emotions:

1. De-personalize issues.

Like many leaders, Amanda was taking her team’s behavior personally. She was basically saying, “How can they do this to me?” But here’s the thing: another person’s behavior is almost never about you. They are living their life, trying to do the best they can with what they have. They didn’t wake up that morning thinking about the best way to anger you.

In short: You are not the center of anyone else’s universe. (Unless you have a dog – then you’re totally the center of their world.) De-personalize the issue by recognizing that this isn’t about you. You need to lead through it, but it’s not about you.

2. Name your feelings.

This is a powerful way to lessen the grip of powerful emotions. When you realize you’re feeling tense, upset, tight, or can’t breathe, take a moment and try to name the feeling. Eg: I’m feeling scared, I’m feeling frustrated, or I’m feeling sad.

Your emotions are there for a reason. They’re like a warning siren calling for attention. When you ignore them or try to push them away, they turn up the volume. Over time, consistently ignoring them can do serious damage. But when you name it, it’s like you’ve acknowledged the warning call by saying “I see you – thanks for alerting me.” Just naming the feeling helps it to move through you and loosen its grip.

3. Apple catching (choose what you allow in.)

Imagine someone tossed an apple to you. You would not catch the apple with your mouth, immediately chew it up, and swallow it. You would catch the apple, inspect it, and then decide if and when you want to eat it.

Feedback is the same way. Don’t automatically internalize every bit of feedback you receive. If a 4-year-old stomped their foot and said “I don’t like you very much” it probably wouldn’t offend you.

But have a 44-year-old colleague say those same words and many people automatically take offense. They swallow that feedback without first evaluating it and whether or not it has something useful for them.

4. Get perspective.

Imagine holding a penny right in front of your eye. It blocks out your entire vision. Even if there is a huge mountain right in front of you, you won’t be able to see it because that small penny is consuming your vision. Move the penny farther away from you – get it back in proper perspective and it no longer blocks your vision.

Leadership problems and frustrations are often similar. You care, you devote so much of yourself to your work, so of course, the problems seem huge. But without perspective, it’s often impossible to find the healthiest solutions.

What helps you restore your perspective? For me, it is nature, sunsets, stars, forests, rivers, and mountains that remind me that this is a small problem in a very large universe. Time with family and friends restores my value of what matters most in life and gives me the energy and reserves to tackle the challenges I’m facing. Moving your body helps – a short walk, run, or bike ride can do wonders and give your mind time to process and work through what you’re feeling.

5. Give yourself room to feel.

You’re a human being and those emotions that have you in their grip are there for a reason. Anger is a sign that something’s wrong. Sadness is an acknowledgment of loss. Fear is a normal feeling when faced with the unknown. It’s okay to have these feelings. You can’t erase them. Rather than ignore them or fight them, acknowledge them and allow yourself a moment to feel. This doesn’t mean you’ll wallow in them or stay stuck.

When that promotion doesn’t happen or your team lets you down, give yourself time – maybe an hour or even a day or two to feel sad. Then move forward. Let the emotion do the work it needs to.

6. Move to “How can I…?”

After you acknowledge your feelings, it’s time to figure out what comes next. One of the best ways to do this is to ask yourself a “How can I?” question. For example, if you didn’t get a promotion, ask “How can I better position myself for the next opportunity?” When your team lets you down, ask “How can I ensure they are able to do what needs to happen the next time?” Maybe you need to clarify what success looks like or have an overdue INSPIRE conversation.

Moving to a “How can I?” question re-empowers you and produces positive energy. Don’t move to this step without first identifying what you’re feeling or you may ask the wrong “How can I?” question.

Your Turn

When you’re feeling more frustrated than focused, remember that your feelings have a job to do. At the same time, if you don’t develop the skills for managing emotions, they can also cripple your leadership. Effective leaders lead themselves first. They acknowledge their own humanity and lead their team through theirs.

Leave us a comment and share: What is your best strategy for managing emotions at work?

PS: If you’re unable to cope with your emotions over time – whether it’s depression, rage, or anxiety, please seek the help of your doctor or a mental health professional. Your mental health is every bit as real a need as your physical health – take care of yourself.


Innovative Leadership Training Leadership Development

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Capacity, Winning Well and tagged , , , .

David Dye

Author and international keynote speaker David Dye gives leaders the roadmap they need to transform results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. He gets it because he’s been there: a former executive and elected official, David has over two decades of experience leading teams and building organizations. He is President of Let's Grow Leaders and the award-winning author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say, and Glowstone Peak - a book for readers of all ages about courage, influence, and hope.

2 Comments

  1. I used to get emotional when people will not be transparent. Over the years I have developed the needed skill to ask questions before jumping to any conclusion. Asking questions gives clarity to both the persons.

    One of the things still gets me worked up and in my opinion it is not personal. The thing is when people do not look at the larger picture or try just to solve the matter for the time being without putting much into it.

    • Hello Khawaja and thank you for your comment – asking questions is such a good strategy. As we say, “don’t react, get the facts.”

      When it comes to your frustration, you are not alone! In fact, the situation you describe is so common (and so frustrating to so many leaders) that we’re writing our next book about this subject.

      In the meantime, here are a couple of thoughts to help:

      1) People don’t always understand the bigger picture. Do your people have the data and information they need to understand the strategy? We often find that team members don’t have the same information their managers have and don’t make strategic decisions because of it.

      2) Do they understand why it matters? Have you clearly communicated that addressing the “bigger picture” is a core part of their job? Many people have a narrow focus on what they need to do to survive. Or they get busy on the day-to-day and lose focus on the bigger reality. It can take time and coaching to help people think critically and understand that thinking this way and solving problems strategically is an important part of their job and what success looks like for their role.

      3) Do they know how? Some people don’t know how to think critically. You can usually help them develop this skill (see this post for more information: https://letsgrowleaders.com/2018/05/01/9-questions-to-help-your-team-solve-problems-on-their-own/ )

      4) Are you hiring the right people? We find that some managers get frustrated that people aren’t thinking strategically or taking a bigger view, but that they’ve hired people specifically for their ability to put their head down and do what they’re told. Those type of people usually aren’t the most engaged at thinking “big picture.” If you want problem-solvers, can you hire for that quality?

      I hope those are some helpful starting ideas. It certainly is a common frustration – we would love to hear what other readers think!

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