You’ve just gotten some bad news -- very bad news. An emergency management meeting has been called. Your boss -- or worse, the board of directors -- wants to discuss what happened and why you didn’t fix things before the problem escalated.
This is the kind of event that can easily spiral out of control. The pressure is on, you are heading toward a world of doubt and doubters and your blood pressure is rising. Why wouldn’t you lose your cool?
Most of us have been through some sort of critical performance review. We’ve been called out, challenged and reprimanded when our decisions and actions bumped up against the expectations and agendas of those in charge. The downsides of such moments are obvious.
But there is an upside, too: How we handle our emotions in these fraught situations sends powerful clues about how we manage the pressures of leadership. If you can navigate this minefield without blowing up, you just might arrive on the other side looking better than ever.
This ability is one critical aspect of what I call Executive Presence. It draws on a combination of self-awareness and social awareness to manage your actions (and reactions) and others’ perceptions. It can be the difference between who rises to the top and who falls short. In fact, senior leaders I work with routinely cite outward calm and confidence as qualities that are foundational for effective leadership.
So what does it take to manage your emotions? Are some leaders just lucky to have a calm manner and character and others, well, just can’t help being a hothead when problems mount?
Biology plays a part, as each of us possesses an alarm system in the brain that is constantly on the lookout for threats. Known as the amygdala, this system sends alerts to neural pathways that comprise the fear circuit, bypassing the prefrontal cortex where logical thinking occurs. Taking over the brain’s functions, it prioritizes survival over critical thinking, making reasoning and logical decision-making tough to access.
As Jill Boite Taylor describes it in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, the “alarm” lasts for 90 seconds and triggers a host of physical effects -- rising blood pressure, tensed muscles and the release of adrenaline and other hormones. The mental impact is what Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence has labeled the “amygdala hijack” -- precipitating anger, brooding, withdrawal or other automatic, impulsive responses.
But once the emotional surge strikes, you can intervene and avoid its escalation. This is true both during those first 90 seconds and afterwards.
Stanford University psychologist James Gross, a leader in the study of emotion and emotion regulation, details a series of strategies to modulate emotional responses. Drawing on neuroscience, these include:
1. Situation selection
Whether the situation is real ("This meeting is happening!”) or imagined (“My boss has a scowl on her face. She’s probably upset with me!”), you might try to avoid the situation temporarily until your intense emotional reaction subsides and you can face the music with a clear head.
Such postponement strategies include rescheduling the meeting, excusing yourself from the meeting or simply staying out of your boss’s sight. Remember: these strategies buy you time to calm down so you can engage your prefrontal cortex and respond effectively. They are not “fixes” for the situation itself.
2. Situation modification
Consider ways to blunt the hard edges of the situation. Inject humor to lighten the mood or modify the agenda by making certain points salient that wouldn’t otherwise have arisen. Changing the venue to a less threatening environment -- your office instead of the boss’s office, or even a coffee shop -- may also soften the situation, and so may suggesting a walk instead of a sit-down meeting to discuss the issues.
3. Attention redeployment
Diverting attention away from the most stressful aspects of the situation -- “the skeptics in the room” or “critical facial expressions” -- and focusing on other content, such as the value you’re contributing or the progress you’ve made or solutions to problems you’ve generated, can reduce intense emotional reactions and allow for greater focus and clarity on what matters.
To redirect your focus on “the bright side” in this way will turn others’ attention to those positive elements as well.
4. Cognitive change
This last strategy offers the greatest opportunity to regain your equilibrium and respond effectively.
When the boss lashes out in a tirade, rather than reacting with anger and escalating the situation, remind yourself that he or she acts this way toward everyone. Or maybe remember that he or she is worried about meeting budget projections this month. This “reappraisal” can quickly connect you to your prefrontal cortex and stop that debilitating emotional trigger.
Likewise, by acknowledging your reactions in that initial emotional period, you can weaken the alarm system. Label what is happening -- “I can feel the anxiety coming” -- and the amygdala is less likely to take over.
These kinds of adjustments, which depend on emotional distance and inner self-appraisal, may be tough to employ at the beginning. To improve this skill, regularly evaluate your reactions to situations. Why did the boss bother me so much? Why did I lose my cool so quickly? How can I reframe this to better manage my emotions? Can I benefit from outside coaching?
We live in challenging times, where creative disruption is common and change is a constant. In such a climate, you can easily encounter high-pressure criticism, and those situations are in addition to “ordinary” stressful events such as an important presentation to influential stakeholders. How you adapt to the consequent emotional turbulence can make the difference between being a rising executive leader and an also-ran.
Whatever your inherent temperament, keep in mind that each of us possesses the capacity for emotional self-management. Train yourself in those skills now, because when that bad news comes from the board of directors, you seldom will have much notice.