How to Better Manage your Reactions

By Linda Bodnar, Ph.D., ACC

As we all know, IQ is not enough to make us successful as leaders.  Emotional intelligence (EQ) is key to being a great leader.  One aspect of EQ is self-management, which sometimes can be very difficult to accomplish!

How often have you seen someone do or say something and said to yourself: “Oh man, what was that?” or “Wow, where did that come from?”  And how often have people said that to themselves about a reaction you have had?

Even though our over-reactions may cause us to feel better in the moment, it rarely makes a situation better and usually makes it worse.

Below are a few thoughts on why we might want to control our reactions as we lead and manage people and organizations:

  • Being predictable is key — there is enough change in this increasingly complex, ambiguous world without additional disruption and uncertainty created by inconsistent reactions and behaviors
  • The more your team members can predict what you will say or do, the more they can move forward more quickly in an autonomous way and with less stress and frustration

Not surprisingly, one of the leadership themes in Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment (now called the CliftonStrengths assessment) is “Consistency.”  Similarly, Bates Communications’  executive presence model includes “Composure” as one of the key factors.

Neuroscience research has increasingly shown us how linked our physiological reactions are with our emotional reactions and our intellectual capabilities in the moment.  There are times when our physiological flight/fight/freeze mechanisms take over our ability to think rationally.  This has been referred to as the amygdala hijack, coined by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence.  Finding ways to move beyond our immediate fight/flight/freeze reaction is key to becoming a consistent, composed leader.

In her book, “Stop Overreacting: Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions,” Judith Siegel outlines a number of approaches for taming our knee-jerk reactions.  Before using these strategies, the first order of business is to identify your triggers.  Some examples might be situations that evoke feelings of rejection, loss of control, envy, or resentment of being criticized.  Then, to best handle potential triggering situations:

  1. Notice your body’s warning signs (e.g., tense neck, sweating, pounding heart, racing thoughts)
  2. Breathe deeply (creates space to choose your reaction and brings more oxygen in for use by your “thinking brain”)
  3. Name the emotion (e.g., I feel angry, snubbed, incompetent; this engages rational thought)
  4. Challenge your perception (don’t overgeneralize; focus on what’s happening in the moment rather than the past)
  5. Reframe (create options, remember your goals/North Star, find what is doable, identify how to turn the situation into a learning opportunity)

A leader I was coaching tended to overreact strongly any time someone showed any kind of incompetence that affected him in some way.  This was negatively impacting how he was viewed in the organization and was threatening to limit his future opportunities.  Through coaching, he worked hard on identifying times when this occurred in his interactions with his peers, team, and senior leaders.  He began replacing his fallback mode of showing anger with a different reaction of exploring options, using the 5 steps above to accomplish this.

One day during our coaching conversation, he told me about something that had happened the week before when he and his family were checking into a hotel on their vacation.  There was some kind of mix-up with the reservation.  In the past, he would have blown up at the person behind the desk.  Instead, he took a deep breath and calmly but firmly explored options.  He knew that because he was able to handle it that way, they ended up with a better solution than if he had overreacted with anger, but even more important to him were the comments he received from his wife and kids about how well he had handled it.

I’ll leave you with a few questions to consider:

  • What is your #1 emotional trigger?
  • How are you going to notice the next time it gets triggered?
  • What are you going to do first to catch yourself from over-reacting? Then what?


Managing our reactions is key to the consistency of a respected leader.  To work on identifying your own triggers and establishing alternative responses, speak with Linda.