The NeuroLeadership Institute has identified Self Regulation as one of the four facets of effective and efficient leadership. Leaders must be able to effectively regulate their own emotions and actions in order to make sure their businesses operate with intentional forethought instead of impulsive reaction. Life, and especially business, is full of things that stress us out. Whether it is our daily commute, airline travel, workplace conflicts, or disagreements with spouses, serious challenges to our emotional equilibrium are many and varied.
First, we’ll go over how emotions arise in the first place. We will then discuss the five different strategies that we can use to regulate our emotions. And, finally, what all this means in regards to your leadership skills and how you interact others in your daily life.
The process of generating an emotion starts when you are presented with a situation in which there are a variety of stimuli. For example, if you are engaged in public speaking, the stimuli might include yourself and your experiences, the room and the environment, or members of the audience and the actions they might take (sneezing, taking notes, falling asleep, etc.). While you are processing these stimuli, your brain uses selective attention to focus on a few of them. You may fixate on the people who look bored, you may focus on the bright lights that are blinding you on stage, or you may be distracted by your sudden urge to run to the bathroom.
The next (and most critical) step is assigning meaning to the stimuli that you choose to focus on. If you’re focused on the people who look bored and tired, you might assess that your presentation is not engaging them. Or, you could presume that they just did not get a lot of sleep last night. If you appraise their tired expression as resulting from something you are doing, you might feel threatened and afraid. After this appraisal is made, a response is triggered that includes changes in your experience: fear, sweaty palms, and/or stage fright, for example.
The funny thing about emotions, though, is that they are constantly generated by a cyclical process. Situations create emotions, emotions create responses, responses create more emotions, those emotions affect your situation, and so on and so forth. So what can you do about it?
There are five ways you can regulate emotion: Situation Selection, Situation Modification, Attentional Focus, Reappraisal, and Response Modulation. Different strategies impact the different stages of generating an emotion so there are pros and cons to each approach.
Situation Selection involves putting yourself in situations that promote the emotions you want to have and taking yourself out of situations that promote the emotions you do not want to have. Basically, you’re intentionally selecting the situation. For example, you might choose to go to a salad bar when you’re on a diet instead a fast food restaurant.
Situation Modification, on the other hand, is important if you can’t avoid a certain situation. Instead, you attempt to modify the situation in a some way to promote the kind of feelings you want to have. If your friends insist on going to the fast food restaurant for dinner, for example, then you might change your order to something more vegetable-based instead of your usual double-pounder with cheese.
Attentional Focus is an attention deployment strategy that involves focusing on the things that you want to process more deeply while diverting attention from other emotionally arousing input to temporarily lessen your response to it. If you’re getting distracted by your friend’s delicious-smelling burger while you’re trying to enjoy your salad, for example, you can try to focus your awareness onto the satisfying crunchy texture of the vegetables.
Reappraisal is the most universally applicable emotion regulation strategy out of them all. It is the most well-known kind of cognitive change (Lazarus 1991), which involves reinterpreting the meaning of a stimulus or event in a way that changes its emotional impact. For example, you could choose to take a step back from the salad vs. burger situation and reframe your perspective to realize that, even though the burger may be more delicious than the salad, it is the better, healthier choice. So you can intentionally choose to experience the reward of being healthier rather than experiencing the threat that comes with the loss of the burger.
Response Modulation is the last, and potentially most harmful, strategy for regulating emotions. This involves suppressing or enhancing the behavioral manifestation of an emotion. When suppressing, you are attempting to hide your feelings. When enhancing, you are trying to amplify whatever emotion you are feeling. In the salad vs. burger situation, you could try to suppress your feelings of disgust as you eat your salad. Or, you could deliberately smile in an attempt to enhance the pleasurable feelings you might experience from making healthier choices. Over the long term, however, this strategy has been shown to take a toll on your cardiovascular health since attempting to control your feelings (without working through them) is actually more physiologically arousing than going ahead and expressing what you feel (Ochsner 2008).
So, what are the possible implications of enhancing your ability to self regulate – especially in a leadership context? The first is that we are empowered to take control of the interpretive process of emotion generation, thereby taking control of our emotional lives. This highlights the distinction between our reaction to a situation and what the situation actually is.
Secondly, we can then be more aware of the factors that influence our appraisals of any given situation (i.e. bias, placebo effect, etc.). We are thus empowered to base our reactions on our inner beliefs and values instead of on external factors – we are in control!
Finally, we can recognize that the responsibility that comes with taking control over one’s own emotional life can be used for good or evil. Failing to self regulate has both personal and societal consequences. On the personal level, you will experience greater stress and your mental and physical well-being will take a hit. On the societal level, the toll on human welfare taken by unchecked anger, stress, and fear cannot be measured in dollars alone.
If a leader is able to successfully regulate their emotions, they are thus able to enhance their self awareness, relational transparency, balanced processing, and internalized moral perspectives. Self awareness is important because leaders must be able to attend to internal thoughts and values in order to achieve valuable personal insights. Relational transparency encourages the development of vulnerability and intimacy, thus cultivating follower trust. Balanced processing allows leaders to avoid denial, distortion, and/or exaggeration when making decisions and remain objective when analyzing all relevant data. And, as mentioned above, internalized moral perspectives help leaders behave in accordance with internal values, beliefs, and moral standards so that they can avoid being overly influenced by external societal pressures.
All in all, the need for effective leadership has become increasingly salient and is now recognized as critical in today’s world of financial crises, ethical scandals, and widespread culture clashes. New leadership skills need to be considered, especially the ability to cope with stress and uncertainty while maintaining a positive focus on the future. Leaders in particular, and everyone in general, must be able to develop greater self-awareness and self regulated positive behaviors to foster positive self-development.