Emotion regulation – a key competence for managers
Emotions influence our thoughts and our behavior. Even if you characterize yourself and your employees as rather factual and rational, you and your behavior – even if not always obviously visible – are guided by emotions. Imagine you are in an emotionally charged situation – let’s say a team meeting – and you are trying to handle it with aplomb. It can be difficult, can’t it? In such situations, good emotion regulation skills can be an advantage. But what forms of emotion regulation are there and how can psychoanalytic business coaching help you deal with your emotions and those of your employees?
Emotion, affect, mood, motives & motivation – What is actually what?
Emotion, affect, mood, motives and motivation. With all these terms you can get confused. You may have heard them all before, but what exactly is meant by them and how to distinguish them from each other is not always clear even in psychology. Therefore, I will first bring some clarity into the confusion of terms and refer to the definitions according to Krause (2012). Thus.
Emotions are a generic term and include all those qualitatively describable, temporally limited psychophysiological states that are closely linked to inner motives and find their expression in overt behavior. In addition, affects, feeling, mood and emotional expression are distinguished from each other.
In this context, affect is understood as the involuntary physical activation of the vegetative and endocrine systems associated with an emotion, which is associated with the emergence of a readiness to act.
Emotions, on the other hand, describe the conscious, subjective experience of an emotion, which, however, is rather rare as a subcomponent of emotional processes.
Distinguished from this is mood, which describes a prolonged state of lower intensity in which the object of affective experience need not be forcibly known.
And last but not least, emotion is manifested in the expression of emotion, that is, in gestures, facial expressions, and other forms of nonverbal communication, such as voice, posture, and so on.
So, what do our emotions have to do with our motives and thus with our motivation? Our emotions are closely connected to our motive systems – that is, our inner motivations. Without these, we would also find it difficult to understand our emotions. Imagine you have finally finished your new project and proudly go to your boss to receive recognition. If he praises you for your great work, you might leave his office proud and satisfied, but if he just nods it off, you might be frustrated or even angry. In this case, our motive – to receive recognition for our work – does not match the current situation or its evaluation. Our inner balance falters and negative emotions arise. The stronger this discrepancy between our own motive and the current situation, the stronger the emotions and impulses for action that are triggered. In this way, we then try to restore our inner balance or at least somewhat reduce the discrepancy between the actual and the target value.
Forms of emotion regulation
Of course, even in the work context there are always situations in which one can follow the spontaneously occurring emotions and the associated impulses to act. This is also a strategy to deal with one’s emotions and to relieve oneself. If these emotions then also match those that are professionally desired, there is no need for further emotion regulation strategies. The world of work, however, usually holds very different, complex or even contradictory situations in store, in which various emotion regulation strategies are necessary in order to find a solution that is compatible for oneself and one’s environment.
Many emotion researchers focus on the conscious, reflexive emotion regulation strategies. These included cognitive reappraisal, mindfulness exercises, and skill training, among others. From a psychoanalytic perspective, however, it is the unconscious, automatic regulation strategies and the unconscious motivational issues behind them that are more important.
We all have strategies we use to influence our feelings and affects. Often these strategies are so unconscious that we are no longer even aware of our emotions. Some of these strategies are completely automated in us, they are our so-called defense mechanisms. But there are also emotion regulation strategies for which we use our relationships with other people in order not to have to feel our own emotions. These strategies are also called conflict mode in psychoanalysis. What does it look like when these two psychoanalytically based emotion regulation strategies are used in everyday work?
Two case studies from everyday work
First, an example of emotion regulation by means of a defense mechanism: Imagine an intern who goes to her boss on her last day to thank her for her time at the company and to say goodbye to her boss. However, your boss has other things to do, seems nervous, rummages through your documents, answers the phone during the conversation and waves you off. The intern remains polite, albeit somewhat irritated, and waits patiently until the boss hangs up the phone. Over-friendly, the intern says goodbye to her boss and leaves. As the intern leaves the office and drives home, she thinks again about the fact that the boss doesn’t even take 5 minutes to say goodbye on the last day.
But what was unconsciously going on in the intern’s mind? She was probably angry and sad, but did not want to admit these feelings to herself. Perhaps she was also unconsciously afraid that her boss might notice her anger and then no longer be well-disposed toward her. By turning her sadness and anger into the opposite by means of the defense mechanism of “reaction formation” – i.e. by behaving in a particularly friendly manner towards her boss – the trainee does not have to feel these emotions. At the same time, her friendliness puts her in a behavior that is easier for her to bear and more socially acceptable.
While in this example the unconscious emotion regulation was intrapsychic, emotions can also be regulated interpersonally. Consider, for example, a boss who leads a team working on an ongoing project. The project is going well at first, if it weren’t for the dominant, controlling nature of the boss, who is also a very high achiever. Again and again, she comes into the office to ask her team about the current state of affairs. The employees provide her with all the important information, but the boss wants to know all the details and keeps tightening the thumbscrews. When criticism or suggestions for changes are made, she gets angry and always feels that she has not been sufficiently informed during the joint meetings. In doing so, she appears very powerful and is unable to adopt an attitude in which she does not place her views above those of her employees without suppressing her own attitude and emotionality. At some point, the fear, powerlessness and anger in the team turn into a power struggle. While some fail to achieve their sub-goals, others try to undermine the instructions, as well as flatter the boss when asked more closely, glossing over the results.
But what is behind the boss’s behavior? Possibly she herself is afraid of being determined, controlled and exploited by others and thus feeling powerless and helpless. By giving herself the appearance of being controlling and determining and acting powerfully towards her employees, she shifts her emotions of fear, helplessness and powerlessness – by means of projective identification – into her employees. While they now feel controlled and powerless, the boss no longer needs to feel these emotions herself and can thus regulate her emotions.
In the work context, then, as exemplified by the two cases above, there is no getting around dealing with one’s own emotion regulation strategies. Of course, emotion regulation strategies can also be functional. For example, prospective physicians must be able to distance themselves from emotions such as disgust or sexual arousal in order to adopt an appropriate professional attitude. Only when one’s own spontaneous emotions do not match the professionally desired emotions or even contradict each other does it become necessary to deal with one’s own inner life and associated emotion regulation strategies.
Managers in particular must be able to display a wide range of emotions when dealing with their employees and choose between them. In addition, they are also confronted with the regulation of their employees’ emotions. As supervisors, they must not only serve as role models for their employees in terms of emotion regulation, but also be available to them in a regulating capacity when it comes to processing emotions that arise within the team. The ability to regulate emotions is also a core competence that is indispensable for managers when it comes to adjusting to the employees in the team, motivating them, and promoting their job satisfaction and development potential.
Psychoanalytic business coaching can help you get to know yourself and other types in your team better and develop your emotion regulation skills. But what exactly does this look like?
Psychoanalytic business coaching – get to know yourself and other types better
If the focus of your coaching is on emotion regulation, your coaching can be based on a trusting coach-coachee relationship, so that you learn to be more aware of your emotional situation and your unconscious motivational structure and can better differentiate between them. Away from the stressful daily work routine, coaching can help you to loosen up your own defensive structure and to notice and feel unpleasant feelings such as envy, shame, guilt, anger or sadness, to expand your verbal repertoire of feelings and to integrate them into your own self-image. Once a good coaching relationship has been established, it may even be possible to activate the previously overwhelming and defended emotions in a more relaxed way during coaching. In a joint reflection process on the emotional experience and its causes – flanked by references to your own biography – you can classify and understand yourself and your respective emotional states. Only when these emotions have been repeatedly worked through, understood and integrated together can you succeed in developing more favorable emotion regulation strategies that suit your personality. Once you have gained a better understanding of their emotional and motivational world, you will also have a good basis on which you can better empathize with your employees and be available to them – especially in times of crisis or change processes – to regulate emerging, overwhelming or contradictory emotions.
If you want to know yourself and other types better and develop appropriate emotion regulation strategies, we will be happy to help you. Contact us here.
Julia Perlinger, Coach at dynaMIND
Krause, R. (2012). Allgemeine psychodynamische Behandlungs- und Krankheitslehre. Grundlagen und Modelle (Bd. 2). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer
Sell C., Möller H., Benecke C. (2017) Emotionsregulation und Coaching. In: Greif S., Möller H., Scholl W. (eds) Handbuch Schlüsselkonzepte im Coaching. Springer Reference Psychologie. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-45119-9_12-1
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