Uncertainty is everywhere we look in organizations, regardless of industry, as companies continue to emerge from the effects of the pandemic. Workplace issues, external forces, reorganizations, and expense reductions are putting increased pressure on leaders to simultaneously deliver positive results and transform companies. There is an additional strain on talent; the exact people you don’t want to lose, are walking out the door, making new career and life choices. Executive leaders are fighting for the survival of their companies, their teams, and themselves. 

This is plenty to cause a leader to have emotional reactions. Senior leaders often don’t like to acknowledge their reactions. In fact, leaders are trained to hide reactions and make it look like they “have it all together”. 

However, even if you don’t show it on the outside,… your reactions on the inside are affecting you and your leadership performance.

When I coach senior executives, I ask them one defining question to assess how they are dealing with a situation: Are you agitated? Just because you are dealing with challenging situations, or even bigger complex problems, does not mean you have to emotionally react. Agitation sits on a continuum from a little upset to extreme outrage. Wherever leaders find themselves on that continuum, those emotions need to be handled effectively. You can’t always just turn your camera off or put yourself on mute. These days, leaders need to strengthen their ability to understand their emotions at a deeper level, especially those that get in the way of their best performance… and learn to rise above emotional reactions.

 Why are reactions so important for leaders to be aware of now?

For the past few years, so many leaders have been in reaction mode. However, leading organizations in crisis mode is not sustainable and will not deliver positive results. There is undoubtedly plenty to react to, especially at VP and C-level. Every day, people, events, and situations will provoke you. To be clear, we are not talking about “self-composure”. Self-composure is a basic requirement for senior leadership roles. 

The more advanced level of leadership development is to go beyond masking emotions, to work at a deeper level with emotional reactions so that there is less that needs to be masked. 

What that means is deconstructing reactions and understanding what triggers them. This allows leaders to “reset” by creating a deeper connection with themselves, so that they can remain grounded and centered as they work through complex daily realities. Just as companies may need to reset to respond to environmental changes, leaders themselves may need to reset how they personally respond in situations.

How can you recognize if you are at risk of emotional reactions?

Ask yourself the same question I ask leaders. Am I agitated? If your answer is yes, you probably need to think deeply about how you are handling challenging situations. Many leaders tell me that they are up at 2 a.m. thinking about work and trying to craft solutions to problems. That’s probably also a good sign that you are in an emotionally charged state. However, this is not due to your lack of talent, and it is not personal to you. Almost every senior leader I work with deals with this. The key to rising above emotional reactions is to know that you have choices, agency, and the personal power to alleviate them. You don’t have to just grin and bear it. However, emotional reactions require thoughtful strategies to deal with them, so that you can reset.        

What are some strategies to rise above emotional reactions?

I’ve delivered over 8,000 executive coaching sessions across 57 companies, 15 industries and 4 continents. The leaders I work with and I have used four strategies that have helped senior leaders to rise above non-useful reactions:

  1. Change the story you hold about your situation.
  2. Realize emotions can distort perceptions, and you need to question your perceptions.
  3. Increase awareness of triggers and separate self-worth from achievement and performance.
  4. Proactively strengthen confidence, by choosing positive practices that keep you grounded and centered.

For example, one VP found herself triggered by her VP peers on their leadership team. As the newest team member, she looked at the other team members as smarter, more educated, and more experienced than she was. Although she was usually confident and had an MBA herself, her new peers included MBAs, MDs, and PhDs. She was becoming aware that she wasn’t having an impact on the leadership team. In meetings, she would find herself stuck in this mindset, self-edit and not contribute – making her feel even worse. The focus of our coaching was to change the story she had about herself and develop a new narrative that focused on her strengths. 

She literally flipped the script in her head. She had to remember that she was chosen for this team because they lacked functional business expertise, and she was an incredibly strong business person. She also recognized that no one on the team knew all the answers, because the problems they were facing were unprecedented. She developed a new narrative, based on her strengths, that enabled her to recognize her value, find her place at the table and confidently use her voice.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not that simple...

If you really want to be effective in deconstructing a reaction, you will want to go deeper and look at what is actually being triggered underneath the story you are telling yourself. In this instance, the real trigger for this VP, despite her outward display of confidence, was her own self-doubt and the fact that she questioned her own self-worth. To be successful, leaders need to keep the conversations about self-worth and performance/ achievement separate. Conversation number one, on self-worth, is how you feel about yourself. Conversation number two, on performance and achievement, is about the actions you decide to take to make a difference in the world. A mentor of mine described this quite well: "How valuable or worthy you feel you are starts as your own assessment, your own judgment.  It’s not like it can be proven as true or false.  We actually decide our self-worth."

Why does rising above reactions matter?

A leader’s reactions will define a key element of what you need right now to be successful: followership. Followership is needed to execute and to deliver against an ever-changing sea of expectations. To do this, leaders need to have a model on how to handle emotions; especially those emotions that you don’t show on the outside, but you feel on the inside. So, the next time you are triggered, press the PAUSE button, and go deep to understand the source of your agitation, so that you can rise above it and reset. This leadership capacity to quickly reset is one of the 3 keys for you to create Even More Impact.

For more insight on how to leverage strategies to rise above emotional reactions that can get in the way of a leader’s performance, check out my new book Even More Impact available at Amazon.