Our emotions are driven by biological impulses. These biological impulses are beyond our control, but the resulting emotions are not. When emotions are running high, they certainly cannot be ignored – but they can be carefully managed. This is called self-regulation, and it’s the quality of emotional intelligence that liberates us from living like hostages to our impulses.
The signifiers of emotional self-regulation are easily identified. A person who knows how to self-regulate possesses:
- an inclination towards reflection and thoughtfulness;
- acceptance of uncertainty and change;
- integrity – specifically, the ability to say no to impulsive urges.
Self-regulation is a pretty underrated skill. Those people who have great control over their emotions can be perceived as cold, aloof, or dispassionate. And we have a tendency to glorify the so-called archetypal leader who blows his top. Some even mistake this as a side effect of brilliance. But these types are often at a disadvantage if they’re able to make it to the top. In my experience, I’ve never seen the tendency toward radical outbursts to surface as an indicator of strong leadership.
Picture a leader who has just witnessed his team give a bungled presentation to the company’s board of directors. After the meeting, this frustrated executive might want to act out by slamming a door or pounding his fists on the table. Maybe his knee-jerk reaction is to maintain a mile-long stare and then leave the office in silence. But what if this leader knows how to self-regulate? If he does, he’ll plan his reaction carefully. He will acknowledge a weak performance without passing any harsh judgments. He will reflect on the reasons behind the failure.
For instance, was it a lack of effort? Was there something holding his team at a disadvantage? And what responsibility does he hold for this fiasco? After thoughtful reflection, a self-regulated leader would bring the team back together, discuss the consequences of the presentation, and provide his objective assessment of it. He would then offer a well-considered solution.
Why is self-regulation so imperative for leaders?
- Reasonable people—the ones who maintain control over their emotions—are the people who can sustain safe, fair environments. In these settings, drama is very low and productivity is very high. Top performers flock to these organizations and are not apt to leave them.
- Self-regulation actually has a ripple effect. Who wants to be seen as a fiery rabble-rouser when the boss is admired for her even-handedness? More positive attitudes at the top mean more positive attitudes throughout the organization.
- It’s a competitive asset. We all know the landscape of business changes rapidly. Technology is constantly changing; companies divide and merge everyday. At all levels, leaders who know how to self-regulate will thrive on these changes. When a new database system is announced, for instance, a self-regulating leader will steer clear of snap judgment, focus on the steps for implementation, and lead the way by example.
- Lastly, I want to emphasize how self-regulation enhances integrity, which is not just an individual virtue but also an incredible asset for an organization. So many of the disasters we hear about at companies are simply the result of impulsive behavior. And most offenders don’t accept positions with the intention to embezzle, jeopardize workers, exaggerate profits, or abuse power. Instead, a chance to increase personal gain or cut corners arises, and those who don’t know how to self-regulate just give in.
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