Ask the Doc

Master Your Emotions so Stress Won’t Make You Stumble

Question: We have had so many mergers and changes and fast growth within our organization and the atmosphere at work is stressful. My boss tends to blow up to let off steam. Other people in the office are looking for someone to blame or they just have a bad attitude. What can you do at times like these to keep your cool and not jeopardize your own job?

Stressed Out at Work

Bob’s Answer: This is certainly a time of urgency and stress in many organizations and quite a few people have spoken to us about the pressure you describe, Bart. Blowing up or making a personal attack can release the tension, but it’s destructive – and it’s not the only way to get back to your comfort zone.

In times of stress employees look to their leaders for signals. How the leader behaves makes a big difference in the stress his/her team will feel and how they will handle it. In fact, much of leadership is about managing emotions in yourself and others. People in a group “catch” emotions from one another, especially from their leaders, and negative emotions can infect the whole group.

So how do you keep from catching the negativity around you; avoid sabotaging yourself with an emotional mistake; and set a productive tone for your team? Obviously, life is easier when the economy is strong, but lower sales, company layoffs or other outside events don’t cause our feelings – our feelings come from how we interpret or evaluate an event.

Imagine a man out rowing in a lake—some young novices bump into him from behind and he feels annoyed the first time, but the second time, he becomes furious. However, when he turns around to complain, he sees this boat is empty. It has come loose from the dock and drifted into him. Immediately his anger melts and he simply returns it to shore. Clearly, it isn’t being bumped by the boat that causes his feelings of intense anger – it is how he thinks about what happened.

When he frames the bump as someone “doing him wrong” his emotion is very different than when he recognizes the collision is no one’s fault. When your boss starts blasting, you can either tell yourself “This is horrible, how can he treat me this way!” and feel upset and angry, or you can say, “It’s too bad he is so stressed that he can’t control his temper. I know it’s a tough time, but I don’t have to lose my cool.”

Lyn’s Answer: Controlling your emotions is critical to creating a productive culture of respect in a company, and the best leaders are respectful leaders. Whether they let it seep out as resentment, or express it in tirades, your co-workers’ anger gets in the way of respectful relationships and could have a major impact on your company’s performance when opportunities do surface. Your question is important because as Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE said, ‘trust and respect take years to build, but only a moment to destroy.’

To master powerful feelings like fear or anger you need to be aware of the way your emotions affect you and others and develop the ability to change and adapt those emotions by changing your thinking. Internal emotional reactions seem automatic, but they are not. You can change them through conducting an inner dialogue with yourself which we refer to as “self talk.” Even healthy debate within a company generates tension and great leaders build self- awareness of how they respond emotionally and talk to themselves about how to adapt those emotions to achieve their vision for the future.

Bob: The goal is not to suppress your feelings. Recognizing and expressing feelings is essential for a relaxed well-functioning mind and body. The goal is to master your feelings by being aware of them, and use positive but realistic self-talk to achieve the optimal outcome for yourself and your company. When your boss starts into a tirade, you don’t control the situation but you do control your response.

Lyn: I heard a former executive interviewed this morning who is now working at Starbucks. He wisely said – “You can’t control what happens on the outside; what you can control is your own internal happiness.” ESM or Effective Self Mastery is an ongoing process of changing the way you talk to yourself and the way you frame your emotional responses. We talk about emotional mastery in Chapter 4 of our book Decent People, Decent Company, and you might also read:

Wayne Dyer – Change Your Thoughts, Change your Life.

Matthew McKay – Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life

Martin Seligman – Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life