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Three Steps to Manage your Emotional Reactions in the Workplace

Updated: May 25, 2023

What if emotional outbursts were allowed at work? I attended a virtual meeting with Angelique Kim, Business Development Partner at SNHU (Southern New Hampshire University) this past week. She shared with our group updates, news, and focus areas for the University’s five-year strategic plan. When her news reel was finished, she asked us to share our thoughts, impressions or emotional outbursts about what she had just communicated.

Thoughts? Sure, we were given a space to convey our thoughts. Impressions? Yes. A forum to share what resonated with us about the information provided. Emotional outbursts? Huh? Did she just give us permission to react wildly, with frantic energy and hysteria? I laughed out loud. I have worked in the social service sector for almost three decades and even in that type of environment, I had never heard the option in a work place situation that sanctioned “emotional outbursts”.

Angelique went on to share that SNHU asks employees to share their thoughts, impressions and emotional outbursts during every meeting and forum. She went on to say that it offers employees an opportunity to express their honest and frank opinions without judgment. I liked her explanation. But without that explicit invitation from an organization’s leader, how should you mange your emotional reactions in the workplace?

Can you think of a time where you reacted to a situation at work with a strong emotional edge or intensity and later questioned if that was the right thing to do? Jessica, a coaching client of mine, shared with me a situation when she was overloaded and overwhelmed by her job. The work demands had increased, she was doing the job of three and she felt like she could not get out from under. She recalls feeling stressed and on edge where feelings of anger and resentment began to emerge.

One day she reported that she walked past a senior manager in the hallway and scowled at him. When she got back to her office, she realized what she had just done, and it did not sit well with her. She was worried that she would be called out for her rudeness and started to question her behavior. She began to reflect and gained some insight. She had misdirected her frustration and stress on someone more senior than her. This person represented being the cause of her duress and she wanted them to experience and feel her angst. She immediately decided that this was not how she wanted to handle her work stressors.

There could be a host of situations in your workplace that elicits and triggers a strong emotional reaction. It could be the fear of making a mistake, uncertainty about your company and their financial viability, stepping into a new situation that scares you, making a presentation in front of your colleagues, team or senior leaders, your upcoming performance review just to name some examples. Everyone experiences situations differently and it is important that you become aware of the ones that trigger reactions that you want to have a better handle on. Having a proactive plan in place will assist you to maneuver these situations more effectively. You can guide your reactions and take steps to become more cognizant and planful.

Below are three steps you can incorporate when you are struck with a work situation that drives your impulse to react emotionally.

Number 1 – Accept responsibility and own your reactions.

It starts with taking personal accountability to your reactions. There will many situations that will get under your skin and drive your impulse to react. What you do with those reactions and how you choose to respond will be key. Justifying and rationalizing your reactions can lend to a limiting way in which you deal with situations to begin with. Even though you may have every sound explanation to do, say or even react as you may have, your emotional reaction may not provide the optimal result that you desire in the long run.

Immediately after Jessica roared like a lion to one of her senior managers, she owned it. She staked claim that her reaction was hers and hers alone and she took responsibility by acknowledging how she fumbled with her high level of frustration. Jessica looked inward and gained a personal insight. She acknowledged that although her negative feelings were normal and natural to have, her reaction to them has an impact on others.

Number 2 – Recognize the emotions experienced and why.

When you encounter a situation that triggers a strong emotional reaction try to identify what emotions you were experiencing and who was present at the time. Ask yourself the following questions; what may have triggered your emotional outburst and what were the feelings that were connected? Gaining insight and awareness will assist you in discovering the root of the issue.

Jessica identified that she was angry, frustrated and feeling exploited. When she saw this senior manager, she targeted him and zeroed in on him as the source. At that moment, he was one of the parties responsible for her ill feelings, so why shouldn’t he feel the “sting”? This exploration process was cathartic as Jessica became aware that her feelings were valid, and her reaction had been misguided.

Number 3 – Identify how you want to feel and create a plan on how you will go about achieving it.

It would be unrealistic and almost unconscionable to require yourself to divorce your emotions from your daily work experiences. It is normal and natural to feel and express your emotions. The question becomes how you want to feel and how do you activate and achieve those feelings. Susan David states that we want to work on the concept of workability. She encourages you to act on your values. Engage and practice steps that will serve you and others in your collective purpose.

Jessica’s core value of treating others with respect was compromised in this situation. Instead, she decided that moving forward she was going to practice taking deep breaths when she started to feel overwhelmed and stressed, take a brief and brisk 5-minute walk outside of her office building, and talk with her manager to strategize ways to manage her workload better. Although, these steps were not magic cures they did allow Jessica to own her feelings and reactions, gain greater self-awareness, develop a plan for action and feel confidently more in control.

Tony Robbins says, “It is your decision, and not your conditions, that determine your destiny”. Your emotions are innately part of you and are often triggered by your life experiences, the way in which you see the world, and your unmet needs. How you decide to own, recognize and plan expressing your feelings in the workplace is up to you.


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