How to Keep Your Cool When Work Gets Heated

Especially in high-pressure environments, even seemingly innocuous statements can set people off. Use these self-management techniques to regulate your response.

Our uncertain and anxious times demand emotional reliable leaders. Committed to understanding their own minds and behaviors, they’re able to separate their own emotions from the situation and manage their reactions appropriately, even when things get personal and heated.

We all have our emotional hot buttons; things that throw us off balance and cause immediate, often significant reactions. Maybe it’s when someone interrupts you, is late for the meeting again, or sends you a late-night email with the expectation of a speedy response. We know from experience these are not our best leadership moments—we lose empathy for others and struggle to make decisions—and yet, we find ourselves here time and time again.

It helps to understand why we—and we really mean all of us—react this way. The good news is you’re not “just over-reacting.” Our capacity to think clearly and act wisely is seriously impaired when the forebrain – our rational, adult mind – is hijacked by our limbic system. The amygdala, a part of the limbic system that registers threat and generates fear, evokes immediate physiological responses such as increased heart rate and more blood flow to the muscles. All of this happens almost instantly, long before our cortex can access more sensory information and determine whether or not the threat is “real.”  

In terms of threat level, most of the time, we are not about to become someone’s lunch. The real threat is actually inside us (“the call is coming from inside the house!”). The amygdala is not only responsible for our fight/flight/freeze response, it also stores and surfaces the personal memories and stories associated with emotional events of our past, making the same incident unremarkable to one person and inflammatory to another.

Picture this: a manager at work uses a disrespectful tone when delivering feedback to their junior reports. Overhearing this exchange, you’re incensed. The less self-aware you charges back to your desk, furious on behalf of the team, and starts an email to the leader berating their management style. The junior reports, meanwhile, have already moved on. They heard direct and focused feedback. With personal reflection and greater self-awareness, you uncover that one of the norms in your childhood home was to respect authority, but to also demand it in return. You’re able to see that this scenario has caused outsized reactions, or “triggering,” in both your personal and professional realms for many years since.

Left unattended, these reactions become the norm, and our resilience begins to dwindle, fast. Which, at its worst, creates a continuous loop of cortisol and a fast track to burn out, and at best, closes us to new opportunities and personal growth.  

So what can leaders do to build self-management skills and support their resilience over the long-haul?

It starts with self-awareness: personal knowledge and insight that becomes that much more critical as we advance in our career, and our behavior sets the bar for others to follow (for better or for worse). Tools like User Manuals can present a first step to understanding ourselves better. It’s also important to become aware of when we are not at our best: the steady and present state from which we can lead most effectively.

Next, self-management. How can you regain control the next time you find yourself blowing up? We find inspiration in the work and mastery of Robert Gass, and his four steps to managing our emotional triggers.

  • Name it.
    Recognize the physical and emotional signs (clenching your jaw, hands
    in fists, tightening throat or increased heart rate), and that you’re
    triggered in some way.
  • Take space.
    Give yourself the time and space to reset—this is a perfect time to
    mention you need ”to check in with the team,” or “time to think”.
    Remember, this is not an excuse to avoid the situation. You are creating
    the space you need to manage your emotions and create greater
    objectivity to act from a place of clarity.
  • Shift your emotional state.
    Establish rituals that help you return to a more centered and less
    emotional state. These can be as simple as a few deep breaths or taking a
    walk around the block. Practicing mindfulness, such as meditation, can
    also help.
  • Deal with it.
    Finally, return to the problem when you’re in a better state of mind.
    With greater calm, you’ve created more choices to get clear on your
    goals and plan your response.
Our Newsletter
How to Keep Your Cool When Work Gets Heated
Search NOBL