Are you capable of shifting your emotional state whenever you choose? It’s difficult for most of us to do, especially when we’re emotionally triggered. When something frustrating, unexpected, or disappointing happens, our limbic systems go into overdrive and we tend to react instead of respond.

A reaction is instant. It’s knee-jerk. It’s acting without thinking first. And it’s completely natural. Reaction is a survival-oriented behavior. It taps directly into our flight, fight, or freeze response to danger. We need this quick-action behavior in order to survive, but it’s rarely appropriate in the workplace.

Reactions don’t take into account the long-term ramifications of what you say or do — which, as a leader, means you can do some serious damage to your team, your employee, maybe even your reputation. Managers who are reactive are unpredictable and inconsistent in their behavior, causing employees to feel unsafe and insecure in their work environment.

On the other hand, a response is mindful and strategic. When a great manager responds, it feels like a conversation that’s tied in with team and organizational objectives, as well as core values. A response feels more complete — and certainly safer — to employees, and they are much more likely to comply and be aligned with it. Managers who are responsive are more thoughtful, mindful, and much more likely to have high-quality relationships where they’re trusted in the workplace.

To create a positive workplace experience for your employees, you must stay calm and maintain composure even when you’re under pressure. Although it’s easier said than done, with continued practice anyone can learn to control their emotions and choose how they respond.

Implement these strategies emotionally regulated leaders use to help them avoid reacting:

Avoid leading with judgment lead with curiosity instead.

When an emotionally charged situation occurs, take a deep breath and really think about how you’re feeling. Consider how you can respond in a more thoughtful way. Keep an open mind and don’t allow your own personal beliefs to rush in and take over what you do. This approach will enable you to listen to your employee’s thoughts without immediately being reactive to them. Instead of jumping to conclusions and making judgments, get curious first. Talk with the employee and ask questions to help you better understand the issue.

For example: “Christina, help me understand what your thoughts were when you decided to take that approach with the project.”

After hearing additional facts or perspectives, you may realize the situation is not as bad as you initially thought and there is no need to react negatively once you learn all of the information.

Employ a sanity check.

Step back and talk to someone you trust about your feelings toward the incident. The perspective a trusted colleague or mentor can provide will help you come back to the situation in a much more calm, effective manner. Just vocalizing to someone else what happened helps us gain clarity, better understand situations, and process our emotions better. This trusted person may also provide more context about what happened that we hadn’t thought of before.

What should you do after you’ve reacted?

If your emotions got the best of you and you reacted negatively toward an employee, it’s vital to repair the situation as soon as possible. Once you’re able to calm down and approach a conversation more calmly, ask your team member for permission to have another conversation. Explain to them why you reacted the way you did, apologize, and provide them with validation on their work. This approach sets the stage for a much more effective feedback or course-correction conversation.

For example: “Christina, I want to talk to you about what I said this morning. I reacted in a way that I shouldn’t have. I thought about it afterward, and I think I was worried about the implications of what had happened, and I thought we were going to lose this very important client. My concern over losing the client overwhelmed me, and I said some things I regret. I do think you’re an excellent employee who is very responsive to customer needs. I apologize for the way I reacted.”

When you’re open and honest, respectful, and genuinely sorry after reacting, it will help to restore your employee’s trust.

The bottom line: Managers who are reactive are less predictable and less consistent in their behavior with their direct reports and peers, and as a result, they feel less safe to those around them and are less effective at leading. Managers who are responsive are much more thoughtful, likely to have strong relationships in the workplace, and are trusted by employees and colleagues.

Key Takeaways

  • When you react in the workplace, not only do you lose your employees’ trust, you also increase the chances of having disengaged employees and turnover in your organization.
  • You can avoid reacting and choose to respond instead by leading with curiosity instead of judgment, practicing mindfulness, and using a sanity check with a trusted individual before revisiting the situation.
  • If you have reacted toward an employee, take steps to repair the situation quickly by explaining your thoughts about what happened and apologizing for your reaction.

Would you like more tips for responding instead of reacting during an emotionally triggering situation? Listen to our upcoming episode of Thrive By Design: The Podcast on Reacting vs. Responding to learn the strategies that emotionally regulated leaders implement to help them avoid reacting in the workplace.