The other day I found myself trying to get some work done at home. With three kids underfoot, this proved a bit of a challenge. About the time I was up to my elbows in it, my two year old decided to have an epic meltdown. I made a joke later on a social media site about my “office mate” having a tantrum. Many people chimed in about similar experiences at work – in their actual offices, with actual adults acting like tantrumming two-year-olds. It reminded me that as much as we may like to think of our work lives as distinctly professional – i.e., devoid of messy emotions and irrational thinking – we can’t check our humanity at the door. Of course we have emotions at work – lots of them, many of them less than positive. How we deal with our emotions has an enormous impact on how we experience our work, as well as how others perceive us. Failing to manage your emotions well at work can be disastrous for your reputation and will undermine your effectiveness.
Even the luckiest among us – people who love their jobs, work with fabulous people, and work in a healthy work environment – are going to face stress at work. Customer complaints, looming deadlines, making mistakes, dealing with cranky colleagues, or getting a phone call in the middle of a meeting about a problem at home – how do you keep cool, calm, and collected in these situations? I’ve realized that a three-pronged approach is helpful: (1) what can you do in the immediate moment to maintain or regain your composure, (2) what can you do day to day to replenish and recharge, and (3) what can you do in the longer-term to make sure that your work and life are structured to support versus stress you?
When you feel your blood pressure start to rise, counting to ten is a popular recommendation. In theory it buys you time to calm your emotions before you do or say something you will regret. But as I quipped to my husband recently, counting to ten doesn’t help when you stop counting and people are still screaming at you. Having a broader repertoire is important for this reason alone. Finding a humorous angle is a good alternative. Breaking out of your current “frame” is the key. Try looking at the situation from another’s perspective. Ask yourself – what do others see right now when they look at me? Notice what your face and your body are doing.
In the medium term, doing something daily that you know helps you maintain better emotional equilibrium is important. For me that is a “you pick two” from a menu including exercise, meditation, time alone, time with friends, or engaging in a non-routine activity. If you feel like you don’t have the time for this, maybe part of the problem is that you need better time management. There are countless resources and methods available for helping you weed out tasks that detract from versus contribute to your quality of life so that you can focus on those that build you up and serve your priorities and goals.
In the long term, if you find that you are constantly trying to put out your own lit fuse, you need to look at the bigger picture and see if there is something that needs to be corrected. Are you experiencing lack of fit between your interests and capabilities and your role at work? Is your work-life balance out of whack? Are there some deeper issues you need to invest in coming to grips with?
Emotions are a fact of life, even in business. We get a thrill when we score a new client, we feel pride when our team surpasses our goal, we feel warmly toward those in the trenches with us year after year – and we can also feel anger, frustration, fear, or guilt. Acknowledgement of this fact leads to self-awareness, which promotes self-insight, which affords self-control.
“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” –Dale Carnegie