Do You Control Your Emotions, or Do They Control You?

Suzie, a rising star sales rep in her company, exits Damien’s corner office. As regional sales manager, Damien is known for hitting his numbers and creating innovative ways to achieve targets. However, despite his good results, Damien’s progress to the next level of leadership has stalled. As Suzie takes a deep breath walking toward her desk, her phone buzzes. She glances at a text from a colleague, “How’d it go at the corner of ‘productivity’ and ‘panic’ today?” She knows it’s not a great joke, but it’s how Damien’s team refers to meetings with him in his office, especially when problem-solving. After she reaches the safety of her desk, Suzie texts back, “I had an entire plan mapped out. As soon as I sat down, he went from 0 to 60—again. He was so busy stressing out that he never gave me a chance to share. Now I’m just as stressed.” She’s worked with Damien long enough to know he’s not a rude person, but his routine reactions to problems continually exhaust his team, impeding their creativity and agility. Behind his office door, Damien’s elevated heart rate is almost as audible as his thoughts that pull him into a worst-case scenario: I’m a terrible leader. This will get me fired for sure. How will I tell my wife? How will I support my family?

For Damien, and leaders like him, what’s the path forward? Greater success awaits leaders like him if they learn to recognize their emotions and learn to choose what they say and do in response, which is part of the second domain of emotional intelligence: emotional self-management, particularly the competency of emotional self-control.

Emotional Self-Management: The Bridge from Awareness to Effective Choices


Emotional self-management follows the first EI domain of emotional self-awareness and comprises the following competencies: emotional self-control, achievement orientation, positive outlook, and adaptability. Emotional self-control, keeping negative emotions and thoughts in check during stressful situations, provides the bedrock for a leader to practice other self-management competencies. Leaders who control their negative emotions early on in a scenario learn to offer positive emotions that help develop creative goal setting (achievement orientation) and encourage a growth mindset (positive outlook). Emotional self-management provides leaders a bridge between understanding what’s occurring internally and choosing the behaviors that influence others. Leaders can choose to act a certain way only when they’re first aware of an emotion and its influence on their behavior. And being able to control one’s behaviors sets leaders up to harness their emotions productively.

Leaders with emotional self-control choose their responses—or lack of—in a variety of situations based on this foundational awareness of their emotions. Leaders with both self-awareness and self-control move from answering “What am I feeling and why?” to “How should I respond in this situation?” Those who develop this habit of answering both questions in the throes of energized situations are more balanced, agile, and flexible.

As Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, writes:

Since we’re hard-wired to experience emotions before we can respond to them, it’s the one- two punch of reading emotions effectively and then reacting to them that sets the best self- managers apart.

Leaders who develop emotional self-control may be tempted to assume it means “stuffing” their feelings or setting them aside. This “solution” is not only temporary, but it also guarantees more severe problems. In fact, it’s not a solution at all; emotional self-control is much more than a leader’s ability to “keep a lid on it.” Instead of avoiding feelings and emotions, self-control’s effectiveness reveals itself in leaders’ abilities to harness their responses to produce productive results. Leaders who can acknowledge how they’re feeling and take hold of their emotions will be able to choose “positively and productively how they react to different situations.”

Self-Talk: A Magnifying Glass of Failure or Starting Blocks for Success

Leaders’ self-talk, the thoughts they have based on how they perceive a scenario, is ground-zero for encountering the effects of emotional self-control. In the heat of a difficult scenario, leaders’ self-talk can become a magnifying glass of potential negative outcomes or a set of starting blocks to propel leaders toward transforming a misstep or constraint into a productive outcome.

Negative self-talk promotes anxious feelings and reactions because of fundamentally negative things leaders think about themselves, sending them down an emotional spiral. Negative self-talk removes a situation, typically one that can be resolved without much issue, from its context and wraps it around powerful narratives of failure, mistrust, and, potentially, professional ruin. Additionally, negative self-talk keeps leaders in a defensive mode, cutting them off from creative, productive choices to resolve an issue, which may result in unintended outcomes. When leaders grow familiar with their triggers and the negative self-talk they habitually succumb to, they can begin developing new ways of thinking and responding with positive self-talk. By learning to reframe a scenario with positive narratives about themselves and others, leaders remain flexible and agile, making available other behavioral choices. And having choices increases the path to achieving goals. As one PROMARK coach shared:

“The more aware we are of an emotion as it builds, the larger the opportunity we have to choose an appropriate behavior vs. reacting based on an unconscious pattern that may result in unintended consequences.”

Leaders who remain in command of their emotions and self-talk, rather than their emotions being in command of them, will see their emotional self-control transform their teams and their teams’ outcomes. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes about research conducted at the Yale School of Management revealing that if a leader is typically positive and encouraging, that leader’s team will likewise be positive and encouraging. If a leader is habitually negative and off putting, that leader’s team members will share the same attitude and their performance plummets.

As another PROMARK coach shared:

“Leaders who can self-manage are on their way to helping others manage while under stress or in conflict–this aids productivity, output, and job satisfaction. Further, as leaders, they will not be afraid of conflict and will be on their way to learn how to encourage productive conflict to drive even better creative outcomes.”

So, how can a leader develop emotional self-control and see its positive outcomes? Here are four strategies leaders can implement today to develop their emotional self-control.

  1. Get Some Sleep: A starting place is to consider the body’s influence on emotions by practicing good “sleep hygiene.” Lack of sleep can debilitate effective leaders through increases in stress, anxiety, poor decision-making, and lack of flexibility. One key practice for better sleep hygiene is making sure a screen—phone, laptop or tablet, or a television—isn’t last thing you look at before you sleep. Replace the screen with a book, typically unrelated to work, and read near soft lighting. This encourages the brain to “turn off” the rest of the body and begin the sleep cycle.

  2. Focus on Breathing: Truth is, most leaders have so much going on, they’ve forgotten how to breathe properly. Most of us take shallow breaths, especially in stressful situations, which means we aren’t taking in the proper amount of oxygen our brains need to maintain basic functions (the ones that keep us alive) and secondary functions, like staying calm and thinking critically when stressed. A simple skill to practice in moments of stress or frustration is taking a deep breath and exhaling. Count to 10 while focusing on completely inhaling and exhaling. Doing so provides the oxygen the brain needs to subdue additional stress and allows for clearer thinking.

  3. Find Someone Not Emotionally Invested in Your Situation: Having someone who can be a listening ear can go a long way to developing emotional self-control. Particularly if that individual has a reputation for listening and healthy self-management, discussing difficult scenarios with him or her reveals one’s self-talk and reactionary patterns. Once these patterns come to light, consider and discuss new self-talk scripts and what productive choices could be available. Additionally, having a third-party advisor assuages sensations of isolation and loneliness, which can heighten moments of stress and difficult.

  4. Prepare & Practice for Triggers: Triggers are inevitable. And the best way for leaders to get ahead of one is to rehearse how they’ll reframe a situation. Once leaders address their common triggers, and they’ve considered new self-talk scripts and response patterns, rehearsing those new responses in a safe place (before the situation occurs) will help leaders reframe not feeling caught off guard when a stressful situation arises. The more leaders prepare themselves by rehearing their positive self-talk scripts and choosing productive behaviors, the sooner new, more successful patterns will emerge—and old patterns will begin to fade.

Emotional self-control helps leaders ensure they’re not limiting their success. Learning to navigate one’s emotions during energized scenarios and choosing productive behaviors that lead to better outcomes is a defining quality of an emotionally intelligent leader. And every leader can begin that journey today. Don’t go it alone.

At Promark, we have a framework to help leaders grow and harness their emotional self-control. Whether it’s one-on-one or in teams, our coaches will help any leader develop and apply the skills and tools of EI to bring about its exciting changes and results.

Join us next month for part 4 as we look at another key competency of emotional intelligence: social awareness.
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For leaders ready to begin the conversation about developing their emotional intelligence, we’re ready to help. Contact us today.

1.Pg. 98, Emotional Intelligence 2.0
2.Ibid.
3.https://www.kornferry.com/institute/how-emotional-self-control-impacts-your-work
4.https://hbr.org/2018/09/sleep-well-lead-better