We’ve all worked with someone who had difficulty managing their emotions—especially the “bad” ones like anger, fear, frustration, disappointment.
You know, the impatient boss who lashes out at employees in response to the slightest bit of bad news; the overly negative colleague who complains about almost everything in the office; the co-worker whose stress and burnout are palpable in every meeting; your supervisor who becomes hostile at the drop of a hat when he’s overworked.
As you’ve probably experienced, working around people who struggle to manage their emotional struggles independently can be pretty unpleasant, and even unbearable, if you happen to be on the receiving end of the negativity. But even if your boss’ criticisms are aimed at someone else, or you’re not the pessimistic colleague’s chosen confidant, you might still find yourself absorbing the negativity around you through osmosis.
There’s a term for this in psychology: Emotional Contagion (EC) is defined as the tendency for our moods to be influenced by the moods of those around us. Researchers Elaine Hatfield et. al. argue that this occurs because we can tend to unwittingly mirror others’ expressions, postures, etc. This can cause us to experience similar emotions to those others are experiencing. On the positive side, this is a foundational piece of empathy—when we are able to “put ourselves in another’s shoes,” in other words. Or, when we’re around someone whose happiness or enthusiasm radiates forth, their positive emotions, too, may become infectious. But this dynamic can be a real downer if we’re around someone in a bad mood and we’re unaware of a need to manage our own emotions.
In office environments, research has shown that when a team’s boss is in a positive mood, the effects tend to spread to their team members; participants showed a greater ability to coordinate and collaborate compared to groups whose leaders were in a negative mood.
So, the golden question: how is it that you develop greater awareness of your emotions in the moment so that you can (1) recognize what’s going on and (2) manage them so that they don’t unintentionally hijack your behavior?
Here are my suggestions.
1. Honor the cliché: listen to your body.
Believe it or not, we experience emotions physically. Take stress, for example. Cortisol and adrenaline (aka “stress hormones”) are released in the blood, and several effects unfold. We may begin to sweat, or feel our hearts beating faster. These symptoms may happen, too, when you’re scared or angry.
Whether or not you’ve realized your body’s responses to various emotions, they are there—so start to pay attention. You can get better at catching negative emotions early on by becoming aware of how they tend to show up for you in your body.
2. Determine your trusted colleagues, and reach out.
Find someone at work who will be real with you and let you know when you seem to be having difficulty managing your emotions. Perhaps you are excessively stressed and are exhibiting irritability in meetings. Try to think of someone in your team who could gently call you out on this, and encourage them to help you notice the strengths and weaknesses of your behavior. Even if you get defensive in the moment, I assure you that the wisdom will help you in the long-run.
3. Identify your triggers.
When you have an incident of inadequately managing strong emotions at work, try to trace it back to your triggers. Do you feel angry around certain people? Did your reaction have something to do with your internal state (e.g. not getting enough sleep, skipping meals)? Were there psychological triggers such as feeling criticized by a supervisor or, feeling overwhelmed by too many demands?
When you are able to recognize potential triggers, you put yourself in a position to know that you will need to be vigilant about applying your coping skills appropriately when those situations arise. Keeping track in a journal can be a helpful means of getting more in touch with your triggers
4. Be proactive about the situation, as uncomfortable as it may be.
If there’s a situation or person at work that’s an ongoing stressor for you and you’re avoiding it, then you might be causing more trouble for yourself, your work, and your colleagues. By avoiding what is bothering you, you’re allowing your emotions to corrode inside of you, which may end up causing resentment in the near-term, and decreasing your resilience in the long term. If you’re someone who tends to be unassertive, then explode when it gets to be too much, learning to manage conflict effectively and speak up is a more constructive approach.
5. Get enough sleep at night.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to greater susceptibility to mood disturbance. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of being more irritable after a poor night’s sleep. While this tip is more of a preventative measure, it’s a tool to rely on always for greater mood stability, boosted immunity, heightened productivity and focus. There’s no ill effects of getting adequate rest!
Of course, many of these tips require a bit of planning in advance—so what to do if you’re stuck in a crisis-moment? The answer is simple, but not easy. 1. Try to be mindful of what’s happening in the moment. Notice your emotions bubbling up, how they’re showing up in your body, and simply take note. 2. Take a deep inhale and exhale, making sure to expand your belly (not just breathing into your chest). This will help calm the nervous system. 3. Check-in with your thoughts. Is there a way to look at the situation differently? What other explanations might there be for what’s going on?
This 3-step process itself may not be possible each and every time a tough emotion catches you off guard. But the good news is that these tools are portable and always available to you. So practice on!
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These valuable tips are all based on research, and my 10+ years of experience working with successful senior executives.