Dealing with Difficult Emotions at Work

Even the most positive workplaces can be pressure cookers of rigorous demands, rapid change and conflicting priorities. How you react when disappointment, anger, fear or resentment rear up can play a major role in how your team responds and whether the working environment improves or degrades in the face of challenge. Learning how to reappraise, or reassess, an emotional situation can help everyone deal with difficult circumstances, reset and move forward while positioning you for greater advancement.
We have all worked with a boss or colleague who seems like an emotional time bomb. When things heat up, they get frantic. When things go awry, they yell, whine, lash out, run worst-case predictions or simply implode or freeze. It is far from empowering for them or others.
But strong emotions are almost as much a part of the workplace as sales targets, expense reports and performance evaluations. The most effective leaders learn how to regulate their own emotional responses when things get tough, and help their teams meet challenges and perform more effectively. They reduce their own stress levels in the process and create climates that nurture trust, communication and motivation.
“The ability to regulate your emotions is critical for healthy functioning and a sense of personal stability,” explains psychologist and author of Better than Perfect, Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. “It is also a skill that effective leaders rely on to help team members put difficult circumstances into perspective, process disappointment and rally resources to meet a challenge. How leaders respond in emotionally-charged situations can significantly influence the ability of their teams to rise to the occasion.”
Running too hot or too cold
We sometimes think of emotions as being off or on as if our only choices are to suppress with a fake smile, or vent and let the chips fall where they may. Research suggests suppression is a bad idea. It hurts the person hiding their feelings and leads to fewer close relationships, more negative emotions, elevated blood pressure and lower life satisfaction. It also stresses out those around you who experience alarm at the disconnect between subconsciously reading your anger and not seeing it honestly shared.
Likewise, letting the full strength of your emotions fly in the moment can also be detrimental. You might say things you will regret, leave others feeling wounded and position yourself as someone who cannot be trusted to handle difficult situations. The emotional competence leaders need is the ability to reappraise, or reassess, emotional situations. 
“Just right” reappraisal
In tough situations, leaders have to be able to inspire others to believe in their ability to effect change and to act in the face of challenge. “. . . one of the benchmarks of a strong leader is the ability to both manage and influence the emotional states of those they work with,” according to research published in Harvard Business Review by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., Director of Yale’s Women’s Leadership Program.
A leader who can reappraise an emotionally-charged situation is able to calm down, take command of her own feelings, take a broader perspective and, ultimately, help lead herself and others to viable responses and solutions.
The how-to of reappraisal
Emotional reappraisal is not simply telling yourself that nothing undesirable is happening. It is about putting challenging circumstances in perspective, looking for any silver lining (if there is one) and figuring out what responses will improve, rather than enflame, the situation. You can focus on negative reappraisal where you reframe a negative event as less negative, or positive reappraisal where you reframe a negative event as more positive. 
  • See a challenge rather than a threat. Research shows that viewing a problem as a challenge, rather than a threat, helps people concentrate and consider ways of coping and problem-solving rather than panicking. It also provides a sense of agency instead of feeling that someone or something “out there” is out to get you.
  •  Focus on capabilities. Perhaps a key customer has decided to shift their business to a competitor. That’s bad news, but you still have tremendous skills and company resources to draw on; can you bring a group together to brainstorm a unique offer to bring the business back? Could meeting with the client correct issues that led to their choice? 
  • See the learning. Even if nothing can be done right now to ameliorate a situation, there are lessons to be gained. If you’ve missed an important deadline or made an avoidable mistake, what processes can you put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
  •  Remember to breathe. It’s amazing how often the right response to a situation is simply breathing. You can quickly calm your emotions by breathing out for longer than you breath in. Inhaling increases your heart rate and exhaling helps decrease it. Revisit the idea of “completing the stress cycle” as shared in a recent WFF article.  
  • Practice on the smaller stuff. Try reappraising simple day-to-day annoyances and you will be better prepared to shine when the stakes are higher. If you have just missed the elevator, get stuck behind a truck on a one-lane road or are disappointed by a team member’s resignation, give yourself a minute to take a breath and consider the situation from a new vantage point.
 Learning how to handle difficult emotions at work is a key competency that can pave the path to greater leadership opportunities for you and greater accomplishments for your team.

Sign Up For Newsletter

Stay connected and learn about the latest news and events in our community!