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How to Give Emotionally Intelligent Criticism

Whether you are a team leader or a member of a team, you will likely encounter situations in which you need to offer criticism or constructive feedback. While this can be difficult, giving feedback is a necessary part of leadership and being a member of a team. Teams that openly address counterproductive behavior create an environment that fosters continuous development, learning, and innovation. The ability to give effective, emotionally intelligent criticism is essential to high levels of team performance.

What Does It Mean to Offer Effective Criticism?

People who give effective criticism balance empathy and an understanding of the person they are giving feedback to with an objective and calm demeanor. They have developed trust through interpersonal understanding and compassion. They know team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and unique abilities. They know if someone would rather receive feedback one on one, or if they are fine with a group setting. They offer objective criticism and deliver it calmly, without divisive emotions.

While many of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies play a role in the ability to give effective criticism, Emotional Self-Control and Empathy are essential to giving effective criticism, particularly in relation to Teamwork.

How to Develop Emotional Self-Control

Developing Emotional Self-Control begins with recognizing your emotions as they occur. When you notice yourself experiencing a strong emotion, whether it be anger, frustration, or something else, make an effort to identify the source of the emotion.

Mindfulness meditation can help you become more aware of your emotional state, while journaling can offer a healthy way to release emotions and track your state of mind over time. In both of these practices, avoid self-judgement. Recognize your thoughts and feelings, but do not overly identify with them or give them too much power.

In addition to making you equipped to give effective criticism, Emotional Self-Control can also make you better able to receive feedback. By contextualizing feedback as information, instead of taking it as a personal criticism, you can internalize it from a context beyond yourself as an individual. As with giving criticism, this is a vital skill for both team leaders and team members. In order to cultivate a team that actively self-evaluates, everyone involved must be open to input and new ideas.

How to Develop Empathy

While Emotional Self-Control requires tuning into your own emotions, Empathy can be developed by tuning into the emotions of others. Nonverbal indicators of emotion, such as facial expressions and body language, can help us get a sense of how others are feeling. More actively, asking questions, and showing genuine interest in people’s responses, makes us better able to understand their emotions and to care more deeply for them. Active listening, which includes making eye-contact when someone is speaking, and nodding if you agree with them, demonstrates your engagement with that person’s thoughts and feelings.

Developing Empathy is also key to fostering mutual trust on a team. Team members that are compassionate toward one another, and care about each other’s abilities and preferences, create an environment of trust, in which people feel comfortable holding each other accountable.   

How to Balance Emotional-Self Control and Empathy to Cultivate an Accountable Team

In her studies of Team EI Norms, detailed in Teamwork: A Primer, Vanessa Druskat found that balanced levels of specific competencies most accurately predicted the emergence of certain Team EI Norms. In the case of the Team EI Norm “addressing counterproductive behavior,” Druskat and her team found that team leaders with strengths in Emotional Self-Control are most able to cultivate an environment in which team members hold each other accountable.

“High empathy seemed to get in the way of providing ‘tough’ feedback. The optimal leader profile was a leader who had high empathy and also a high level of self-control.”

Leaders with a balance of Emotional Self-Control and Empathy can manage their emotions and deliver difficult feedback in an impactful way, while also considering the emotions of the person they are critiquing.

An effective balance between these two competencies also strengthens the Teamwork Competency. High levels of Empathy, balanced with Emotional Self-Control, yield teams focused on relationship development and effective accountability. Compassionate teams, that care about each other and their contributions to the group, lay a solid foundation for the creation of open channels for honest feedback. In this way, effective, emotionally intelligent criticism becomes a vital aspect of the team’s process, as they hold each other accountable for their level of performance.

Recommended Resources:

Interested in coaching others in Emotional Intelligence? Our new Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification is now accepting applications. This in-depth program, akin to a professional degree, draws upon a range of evidence-based concepts and practices, including the Emotional & Social Intelligence framework. Coaches will gain meaningful new insights to impact their personal and professional lives while elevating their expertise.




For further reading, our series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, which include Emotional Self-Control, Empathy, and Teamwork.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies. Explore the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

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How to Build Self-Management to Change Deeply Ingrained Behaviors

Several years ago I decided that I had enough personal baggage getting in my way to merit going to therapy.  It was a wonderful and challenging experience, therapy.  I had some major epiphanies about where some of my “less functional” behaviors come from. One of these behaviors—being over-critical of and micro-managing my kids—was one that I felt real motivation to change.  Unfortunately, despite what felt like life-changing new awareness about my parenting behavior, I struggled to self-manage when they didn’t clear their breakfast dishes or borrowed my clothes without asking.

Therapy is just one path that leads to epiphanies about ourselves in our lives, and if we are present and aware we see these moments as real gifts. Unfortunately, those gifts often fade into the background of our lives once the sessions are over.  Therein lies the hard truth about self-awareness and self-management:  building new self-awareness (even rock-your-world self-awareness) does not in itself change our behavior.

It takes deliberate focus and supported skill building, informed by self-awareness, to shift ingrained, routinized, emotionally-laden behaviors.  

This is the work of self-management: building the intellectual, emotional, and behavioral muscles to modulate our thoughts, emotions, and reactions to the triggers that lead to ingrained behaviors.   This change doesn’t happen overnight after our big epiphanies.  To truly change our behavior we must self-manage in our trigger moments, over and over and over, until we replace old, ingrained habits with new, ingrained habits.  Self-management is a long-distance race.  And the race is winnable!

Five Ways to Develop Self-Management

1. Do the pre-requisite self-awareness work

My coaching colleague Michele Nevarez wisely says that, “we arrive at where we aim.”  Before we can effectively go after our self-limiting behaviors, we have to understand where it is we are actually aiming, or what we are really trying to self-manage.  This is because emotional self-management is more about managing what causes our behaviors than the behaviors themselves.  Doing self-awareness work means uncovering the triggers, emotions, and self-limiting thoughts that lead to our behaviors.  Our target is to self manage at the point of trigger; before the behavior itself.  We want to head off our emotional chain reaction that leads to the behavior.  Some of us who are naturally self-reflective can do this work independently if we ask the right questions.  Most of us will need the help of a thoughtful friend, coach, or therapist to bring these triggers, emotions, and thoughts to the surface.

2. Plan for it

Once we know what our trigger is, we can plan for it.  If I know that my adolescent son will yell at his sister every time she is remotely critical of his outfit, I can plan for how I react.  I can plan my response, verbatim.  I can plan a logical and fair series of interventions if they escalate.  I can even plan to leave the room and put on my headphones.  If I can be aware enough in the moment and remember to follow my plan, then that may sometimes be enough to shift a pattern of unproductive behavior.

3. Access your power

I believe that we all have the power inside of us to not only manage our triggers but become resonant leaders in our own right.  This power comes from our values and our deeply-held beliefs.  We can learn how to access this power in the micro moment of our triggers to block our self-limiting emotional chain reactions and create the space for a productive path.  Questions we can ask ourselves to discover that power include:

  • Why do I care about this behavior or situation?
  • What do I believe about what is right and true about this?

Once we identify our deeply held belief that connects to our triggering context, we can articulate a phrase or a mantra that we can access in the moment—such as “my kids will build character and social skills if I let them work this out on their own.”  It will help us to practice accessing our beliefs with a partner in a simulated moment of trigger to build this muscle.

self-management emotional intelligence


4. Cultivate your inner coach (the angel on your shoulder)

Remember the cartoons of our youth, in which a devil and an angel would appear on a character’s shoulder at a key decision-making moment?  With our ingrained habits, we have an oversized devil and undersized angel on our shoulders.  Cultivating our inner coach is essentially building up that angel.  What can this coach say to you at your moment of trigger to remind you how you plan to manage your emotions and story?  How can that coach help you remember why you care about this behavior, and what you aspire to become?  If you can answer these questions in meaningful ways to yourself, and practice, then your angel/coach will likely be there for you in that split second of need.

5. Create structures for reflection and support to sustain practice over time

Again, changing ingrained emotional reactions, stories, and behaviors is a long-distance race.  We have to practice over and over to rewire our brains, literally growing new neural highways and building new behavioral muscles.  If we do not build structures and supports around this practice, we will likely lose focus amidst the other urgent day-to-day demands of our work and our lives.  Coaches are great supports because we not only keep your eye on the ball, but help you to continue to build new awareness and self-management strategies over time.  Peer coaches or “change partners” can be effective if you both truly commit to a long-term relationship and stick to an effective system of reflection, revision, recommitment, and practice.  Those of us who are particularly reflective and disciplined can even do this work on our own, but even this group will need some external structures (like scheduled, sacred self-meetings) to make it happen.

With the right skill-building, supports, and self-discipline, we can build new awareness and change deeply ingrained self-limiting behaviors over time.  In other words, we can become more emotionally intelligent. I can think of no better reward for a long distance race.

Recommended Reading:

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Emotional Self-Control, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies—including the author of this article, Matthew Taylor. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!


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How Meditation Fuels Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

meditation and emotional intelligence

Not many of my readers know this, but long before I started writing about emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness, I studied meditation. I started back in my college days, and found daily meditation calmed my undergraduate jitters and helped me focus better. To get a scientific look at what I had experienced, I did my doctoral research in psychology at Harvard University on how meditation might help us be less reactive to stress.

Back then, there were but two scientific studies of meditation I could point to. Today, there are more than 6,000. This past year or so, working with my friend since grad school, Professor Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we used rigorous standards to review all that research. We share the strongest findings in our book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. While 99 percent of the studies failed to meet these standards, about 60 – one percent – were first-rate. They make a convincing case for the positive, lasting effects of meditation.

Meditation and Emotional Intelligence

While continuing my interest in meditation, over the past 20+ years, of course, I’ve studied and written about emotional intelligence and its powerful role in high performance and leadership. My colleague, Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University, and I developed a model of emotional and social intelligence that centers around twelve learned and learnable competencies. Now when people ask me how to develop those competencies, my response often includes the power of meditation to strengthen emotional intelligence.

It’s not that meditation makes you expert in all twelve emotional intelligence competencies. Not at all. Exhibiting these at a high level takes specific learning, particular to each competence. But meditation has some general impacts that can help upgrade several of these leadership skills.

For example:

Emotional Self-Awareness supports development of all of the emotional intelligence competencies, simply because it allows us a way to monitor and evaluate what we do and how we think and feel. Mindfulness meditation cultivates emotional self-awareness, helping us develop the mental ability to pause and notice feelings and thoughts rather than immediately reacting. Seeing our thoughts as just thoughts, and feelings as just feelings gives us a platform for choosing more skillfully how we react, or to change for the better what we habitually do.

Emotional Self-Control means that you are in charge of your disruptive reactions, rather than your feelings controlling what you do. I’ve written extensively about the executive centers of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) and the fight-or-flight emotional centers (and their trigger, the amygdala). Research now shows that regular practice of mindfulness meditation builds the pathways between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex so that the calming, thoughtful influence of the prefrontal cortex can curb the knee-jerk reactions of the amygdala.

Empathy – tuning into and reading accurately how others feel – helps us manage our relationships. While emotional self-awareness helps you know yourself, empathy means being able to understand the thoughts and feelings of the people around you. My new book Altered Traits reviews several studies that show certain kinds of meditation enhance empathy – for example, just eight hours of a form of meditation known as loving-kindness or compassion meditation has been shown to strengthen our mental brain’s circuitry for empathy.

Conflict Management
Conflicts big and small are inevitable in work and in life. Being able to understand different perspectives and effectively work toward finding common ground is an essential skill for leaders at all levels of organizations. The building blocks of skillful conflict management include the other three competencies I mention above. Before we can manage conflict effectively, we need to recognize our own disruptive feelings and manage them. We also need to understand the feelings and perspectives of others. Just as mindfulness meditation supports development of the skills for knowing our own feelings and controlling them, those skills enhance our ability to manage conflict.

Emotional intelligence means being skilled at a variety of competencies. Meditation alone will not make you excel in these skill sets, but it can help. To become adept at the competencies, get a strong foundation by first learning to become aware, to focus, to interact with others in a constructive and meaningful way. These abilities are exactly what meditation helps to cultivate.

Recommended Reading:

Altered Traits audio coverAltered Traits is the newest book by bestselling author Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson. Through thoughtful analysis of countless studies, the authors offer the truth about what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it. At the heart of what Goleman and Davidson aim to impress upon readers and listeners is that beyond the pleasant states mental exercises can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting personality traits that can result.

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Engaging the Whole Person at Work


When we see ourselves and our co-workers only as tools to get the job done it is difficult to connect with one another as human beings. Connection is essential to building high performing and high functioning teams, not to mention to creating job fulfillment.

There is a story Max DePree shared in his book Leadership is An Art (1987), told by his father about visiting with the wife of the Millwright for the Herman Miller factory after her husband died. It was in the 1920’s and Max’s dad went to pay his respects to the Millwright’s wife. During his visit the Millwright’s wife asked his father if he’d mind if she read some poetry. He thought it would be appropriate and sat back to listen. As she read, the beauty of the poem resonated with him. He’d never heard this poetry before and asked who the poet was. She said it was her husband, the Millwright. The man who had been integral to the Herman Miller manufacturing processes, who provided the power for the machinery in his factory, dismantled machines and moved them around was a poet. This came as a surprise; he’d known the man but didn’t know he had this talent outside of work. It motivated him to see that leaders must, “endorse a concept of person”.

As I read this in the early ”˜90’s I realized that this lesson is bigger than the “concept of person” in a tops down view. It is about connection, learning about the people who work with you and sharing yourself with them. When you connect with the people who work with you, you discover other interests, talents, loves, and they in turn learn something about you.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make if you know the Millwright is a poet, the Accountant is a photographer, the HR Manager’s child is seriously ill or the Customer Service Specialist has just lost her mother?

Business is structured as a well-defined hierarchy that defines us by our titles and the roles we play within business, and our interactions are determined by these roles. The playing field is tilted in favor of the leadership, but should it be? By coming to understand more about ourselves and the people we work with, we can see that occasional missteps at work often result from a much larger context; a problem at home, the death of a beloved pet or some other distraction. They aren’t necessarily about lack of competence or skill, sloppiness or a bad attitude.

Without making excuses we understand that we all have days that are a challenge. “Endorsing the concept of person” builds team and team makes it possible to confront unexpected challenges in the day-to-day life of business, whether it’s shaky sales, disruption of production, strained cash flow, the loss of a well-liked co-worker or the acquisition of a new customer with compassion and understanding. We have jobs and roles within a company, but when we can connect not only through job and role but as fellow humans, we create an authentic engagement that fosters an environment in which human creativity and satisfaction grow and thrive. We form a sense of equality in an otherwise hierarchical unequal environment. The consistency with which we can cultivate these fleeting opportunities, over time builds a level of trust essential to a high functioning team. The challenge is that many believe that when a leader opens up they will be seen as weak or vulnerable. The opposite is true.

Here’s how this played out in my leadership experience

I worked with a smart and capable Engineering Manager who had a reputation as a tremendous problem solver, but he had started to become impatient with process and prone to angry tirades. He seemed to be seething inside. Many of his attacks were directed at individuals. My boss at the time wanted me to “get rid of him.” His behavior was undermining his position with the company and his credibility; people were starting to avoid him. What he lacked was Emotional Self-Control.

Instead of turning my feelings off and seeing him as the “problem” and firing him I sat down with him to talk about anger. Not only his, but mine. I shared some of my frustrations and how important it was to see them and be with them, but not project them out onto others. As we discussed the situation he began to explain what was behind his anger. He kept pointing at the things other people were doing, and I’d share more about my own anger and how my frustration was often rooted in not really understanding how to move the needle and effect change.

Finally I looked at him and said, “You know the anger has to stop. It doesn’t matter what provokes you, you can’t act out and mistreat other people on the team, no matter how frustrated you are. There are positive and constructive ways to address the issues that are frustrating you. You need to find them or ask for help. Do you understand?” He replied that he understood. We talked about the possibility of anger management counseling. He didn’t think he needed it. I told him that I valued him as a co-worker and friend but that if he had another angry outburst, I’d have to let him go, no second chances. As we continued to talk, I asked, “Do you want to stay here?” He said, “Yes. I like it here, I want to stay.” I followed with,  “Do you think you can do this?’ His response,  “Yes, I know I can.”

The problem was now entirely within his control. I knew some of the difficulties he was dealing with outside of the workplace, and understood that having control would likely result in a better outcome. Through our connection and sharing, he knew that I’d had similar challenges in my work life, and others had as well. It wasn’t having the feelings that were the problem it was what he did with them. At this point, he began to problem-solve for himself. He identified his triggers and ways he could address them.  He looked at me and said, “Thanks, I think I need to apologize to a few folks.” He kept his job, and worked better with others from that point on.

By being authentic and curious about his issues, sharing my own, and not taking the easy route of simply replacing him, we built a connection together that made it possible to discuss the issue not just as a boss and employee, but as two human beings. By “endorsing the concept of person”, we created a moment of equality and authentic connection that helped him move from being a victim to understanding the impact his behavior was having on the organization and the need for him to take responsibility. This is leading with emotional intelligence.

Recommended Reading:

Emotional Self-Control: A Primer

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now:

Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability,  Achievement Orientation, and Positive Outlook.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series!

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Culture Development: How to Cultivate People for Organizational Success

culture development


I love the cartoon in which a stalwart CEO sitting behind a desk says to his employee “I want a coherent new corporate culture that will take us into the third millennium and I want it by this afternoon.”

Indeed, culture is at the heart of competitive advantage, particularly when it comes to sustaining high performance. Yet, while business leaders recognize culture’s crucial role, research indicates that fewer than 10% of companies succeed in building a winning culture. 

Notably, there is often a blind spot when it comes to culture development.  Simply stated, it is nearly impossible to develop culture without developing ourselves, the people who make up the organizational culture. 

For precisely this reason, the new book, Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Culture is provocative reading.  In the book, Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, deconstruct the cultural assumptions, norms, and behaviors of three highly successful companies who have charted a new and disruptive path to organizational success. Bridgewater, Next Jump, and Decurion provide examples of positive deviance when it comes to people and culture development.

These organizations see culture development as integral to their business success. Everyone, not just leaders or high potentials, in these organizations is engaged in personal developmental practices, such as minding the gaps between where they are currently and where they aim to be relative to any number of Emotional Intelligence Competencies, including Emotional Self-Control.

Kegan and Lahey are co-founders of Minds at Work, which helps individuals, teams, and organizations make personal and collective change. We spoke with a member of the Minds at Work leadership team, Co-Director,  Deborah Helsing. She shared the following illuminating stories of deliberately developmental organizations (DDO’s) and how they embed Emotional Intelligence skill building into their organizational cultures:


At Bridgewater, an institutional fund management company, people talk openly and honestly about the pain that can be triggered by really looking at our own internal barriers and the root causes for why things happen at work. They refer to an equation to remind themselves and each other why they do this every day:  Pain + Reflection = Progress.

They even have an app that is standard issue on their company-provided iPads, “the Pain Button.”  This tool allows employees to record and share experiences of negative emotions at work””especially times when one’s ego defenses are activated by specific interactions with others. Open sharing of these experiences then triggers follow-up conversations among the parties as they seek to explore the truth of the situation and identify what individuals might do to directly address the underlying personal causes. This practice is aimed at helping people “get to the other side,” a Bridgewater term for working through ego defenses, neutralizing the sting of having your mindset questioned, and coming to actively manage forms of emotional self-protection that will otherwise be barriers to personal growth. 

Next Jump

Next Jump, an e-commerce company, upholds the belief system behind its culture with the equation: Better Me + Better You = Better US. By broadening the notion of a “learning organization,” Everyone Culture makes the case that any workplace can be a site of deep personal development (especially Emotional Intelligence).

The onboarding process at Next Jump gives new employees a very intense introduction to the organizational culture. Because that culture differs so markedly from that of other organizations, Next Jump has found that helping people adapt as soon as they start work is the easiest time to accelerate their growth. 

For their first three weeks, all new employees including those who come with years of experience and success, and who are moving into senior leadership positions attend what Next Jump calls “Personal Leadership Boot Camp,” or PLBC for short.  The program starts with participants learning to identify their character weaknesses, what Next Jump calls their “backhands.” The metaphor comes from tennis.  Everyone has strengths (our forehand), but in order to be a great tennis player, you cannot  rely solely on your forehand.  You must also work on your backhand, the areas where you feel less comfortable, less natural, or less skillful.

Another practice at Next Jump is The Situational Workshop (SW), which leaders of the company believe is among the most effective things they do.  Every week for two hours, five people meet: two different pairs of Talking Partners come together with a more experienced colleague acting as a mentor-coach. Charlie Kim, founder of Next Jump, identifies what he thinks makes this kind of weekly workshop structure powerful:

At this weekly workshop, each of the four of you describe some challenge you’ve met at work in the week and what you’ve done to meet it, or not. You might not be sure if how you handled the situation was optimal or not. The mentor-coach is there to encourage you to reach a higher level of self-awareness, so that you might identify new options for responding to similar future challenges and so avoid reacting in the same old way…. Over time, you see people growing immensely from these weekly sessions. 

As Charlie explains about the SW’s purpose, the focus is “on the training of judgment, rather than on technical training.” As a result, the discourse and pace of a SW can be a bit surprising to a first-time observer. People are identifying “problems of practice,” snags they run into, but the coach’s response is rarely direct problem-solving. All Next Jump’s practices are geared to help people change from the inside out. Solving problems too quickly, without the benefit of uncovering underlying assumptions means You won’t change. If you don’t change, you are most likely going to be reproducing new versions of the same problem you think you’ve already solved.

What it takes

Many workplaces attempt to foster the growth of their employees, but few are deliberately organized to put employee growth at the very center of their mission like these organizations do. Kegan and Lahey describe three dimensions of DDO’s that reinforce one another. Edge, home, and groove. These refer to taking risks in working on a skill that involves self-management (edge), for example, while having the benefit of trustworthy communities (home) and regular practices and routines to establish new habits (groove). These three dimensions’ closely mirror Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory, which emphasizes the importance of experimentation and practice within a safe community.

The takeaway here is that wherever you are in your work life you can begin to make meaningful progress toward your own development. For example, find a peer who has a similar intention to strengthen the Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control competencies. Be willing to be vulnerable with one another about the real challenges inherent in change, and look at our own shadows. Commit to weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to build the muscles of EI over time. This small yet powerful step can yield profound results.

If you are a manager or supervisor, you could create your own DDO team. Make time in team meetings to engage in EI skill building. Foster a team culture of non-judgement and psychological safety allowing people to bring their full selves, including growing edges out into the open within the team. Provide meaningful, positive feedback and celebrate small increments of change.

Recommended reading:

Developing Emotional Intelligence competencies is one of the best ways to facilitate culture development in your organization.

Our new series of primers was created by bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman, along with fellow thought leaders in EI, research, and leadership development.

You can find the first 3 in the series available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, and Adaptability.

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The Role of Leader Mindfulness in Emotional Self-Control

Leader Mindfulness

Leader Mindfulness

The Role of Leader Mindfulness in Emotional Self-Control

by Matthew Lippincott

In my last article, I shared how the head of strategy and business development for one of the largest organizations in the world used mindfulness to help develop greater Emotional Self-Awareness. In my conversation with her, she also explained how this improvement provided her with insight that she used to more effectively manage her feelings and behaviors. This was just one example from my research with 42 senior and executive leaders on the influence of mindfulness on their leadership careers at a total of 83 global organizations.

In my study, I collected extensive descriptions of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Competency of Emotional Self-Control. I also found evidence of this Competency in the  participants through transcript analysis utilizing the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis.

What is Emotional Self-Control?

Emotional Self-Control relates to your ability to control impulsive behavior and not give in to negative emotions or be overly reactive in stressful situations. It is also identified by examples of appropriate action and your ability to remain positive in workplace interactions. As is the case with the other eleven ESCI Competencies, Emotional Self-Control has also been empirically linked to increased leadership performance.

How Improved Emotional Self-Control Impacts Leadership

The leaders I interviewed all provided in-depth examples of mindfulness contributing to the development of Emotional Self-Control. For example, “…before [mindfulness] I would have jumped on a pretty extreme emotional personal roller coaster with her, and viewed everything very, very personally,” and “I’ve learned to rely on my mindfulness to…back off on things…in Corporate America, there are plenty of instances where you just need to let things go.”

Mindfulness is especially helpful with the development of Emotional Self-Control because of the heightened self-observation capability it enables.

This cultivates awareness of the sequence of internal events that occur as you process sensory input (sometimes referred to as stream of consciousness) such as reactions, associations, and judgments that ultimately make up your experiences.

More importantly, developing awareness of this process leads to a more functional understanding of the way your feelings influence the quality of your interactions with others.

In this same context, leaders described improved Emotional Self-Control as having a profoundly positive effect on leadership results, such as:

  • Significant improvement in team engagement
  • Reduction of emotionally influenced bias
  • Less interpersonal conflict
  • More effective management of problems and crises

Emotional Self-Control Improves Communication

The previous types of results begin to occur as you assume more responsibility for the outcome of your communications efforts. A behavioral health solution manager supporting over 60,000 employees for a major hospital network gave an example of this, saying: “Instead of just becoming reactive, maybe being judgmental, I’m more inclined to say to myself, well, are you really sure if you understand what her motive is? What do you think might be going on with this person?… And being more aware of that enables me to respond in a way that’s more effective.”

The interrelationship between mindful, Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control enables the development of an accurate and honest understanding of the way your behaviors are received by others. This is especially powerful in the context of how you would apply various leadership strategies, since many strategies link leader success to follower engagement. This includes whether others fully understand what you are trying to communicate, and their willingness to contribute to your success. From that standpoint, you will realize great value from continuously refining your ability to honestly assess if others align with your intentions, and making sure that your emotions are not interfering with this activity.

During our discussions, leaders shared the importance of being able to understand how their habits of thought, biases, and reactions influenced feelings that were potentially detrimental to their leadership effectiveness. More importantly, they described their transformation into more effective leaders by using this personal insight as a catalyst for change. For instance: “…those situations would arouse rage in me…but now I can see it coming up…and ignore it,” and “…you don’t want to cling to your values forever, if it’s not gonna help the situation… If you want to move forward you have to let go to do that”

Improving Critical Leadership Skills

Leaders described Emotional Self-Control as a real-time capability to observe and manage the way they react to what is happening in their environment. They credited this as contributing to improving their personal leadership capabilities, including:

  • Faster cognitive recovery from stressful experiences
  • Greater ability to accept unsatisfactory circumstances and move forward
  • Improved management of depression and anxiety
  • Increased workplace productivity

A story told by a senior leader at a well-known global accounting firm helps illustrate this process of development. Her initial mindfulness practice helped her recognize something she had been unaware of for years””the negative way in which others reacted to her in meetings. Once she had made the connection between these reactions and unsatisfactory outcomes, she began to actively observe her interaction with others.

Through careful reflection on these experiences she began to see the relationship between her emotional states and the efficacy of her communication. This realization helped her understand the importance of focusing on Emotional Self-Control in the context of cultivating stronger and more effective relationships in the workplace. Through dutiful practice she succeeded in changing her interpersonal behaviors and reported improvement in the quality of her interaction with others: “…people started remarking about it…said, ”˜You know what, how come you don’t get angry at all?’”

The Takeaway

In this and many other similar examples, the leaders I interviewed reported that Emotional Self-Control minimized the interference of negative emotional reactions with leadership activities. This improvement then created the opportunity for leaders to engage with others in a more meaningful and effective way. Obtaining these results required ongoing refinement of Emotional Self-Control, which helped leaders with intentional cultivation of other Competencies as well.

In my next article, I will discuss the relationship between mindful leadership and another Competency, Adaptability.

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about how to apply these concepts at work? Our newly released Primers provide a concise overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, as well as an overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model itself.

The Primers are created by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, with several fellow thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research, including Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard J. Davidson, and George Kohlrieser.

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Emotional Self-Control: A Leader’s Perspective on Staying Cool Under Pressure



According to Daniel Goleman, Emotional Self-Control is “the ability to keep your disruptive emotions and impulses in check, to maintain your effectiveness under stressful or even hostile conditions… staying clear-headed and calm.”

Self-management and control are necessary components of the leader’s tool kit. It’s not so much about trying to muzzle yourself as it is about understanding your role as a leader.

Here’s how Emotional Self-Control emerged in my experience:

Years ago, as a newly minted manager at IBM, I was blessed with an insight into what this means both for the organization and myself. I was promoted to management because I was good at doing things. It’s the same in every business where I’ve worked. Generally, those who are the best at doing the work get recognized and when there is a need for managers they are selected because of their ability as “doer’s.”

In my case, I took over a financial planning department at an IBM semi-conductor plant in Essex, Vermont. The manager I replaced was a hard and dedicated worker, often putting in fifty to sixty hours a week; however, his work was largely transactional, and reactive. We did as we were told under his management and took few risks. Having taken over his department, I found myself sitting at my desk one evening wondering what I was supposed to do and trying to understand exactly what it meant to manage and lead a department of skilled financial analysts, some with far more experience than me.

I could feel the beginnings of panic, a tightening in my chest and a strong feeling that I should be doing something. But what? As I sat with my feelings, I suddenly understood. My job wasn’t at all what I thought it was. My job was to hold the anxiety for my department, for my team.

What does it mean to “hold the anxiety?”

Holding the anxiety involves engaging your Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control so that you can see the difference between your “doer” self and your “being” self. When you don’t have the ability to “do,” your anxiety can increase and you may feel motivated not to feel your feelings, but to push them on to your employees and co-workers. This can manifest itself in many forms. Micromanagement or other controlling behaviors are often at the top of the list. It is easy to rationalize our behaviors. But consider an alternative approach: if you choose to allow your anxiety and fear to take over and you micromanage or control your team, you miss the opportunity to develop your own self-awareness and effectiveness as a leader, and also miss out on the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with your team. You may never really see what great work they can do, instead believing they need you to make decisions for them. They will then wait for your direction before making decisions and moving forward because they don’t feel trusted. But developing decision-making abilities in others is key to good leadership.

In “holding the anxiety,” you create space for them to learn and grow and ultimately increase the capacity of your team.

Applying Emotional Self-Control in the real world

It is a very delicate balance. Those above you in the hierarchy may be acting out their own anxieties from various pressures. This is where Emotional Self-Awareness and Self-Control are critical. You can listen to what your boss wants, feel the feelings you have, hold them, and then calmly talk to your team about what needs to be done and engage them in creating the proper result by listening, guiding, coaching, and leading.

Always take a moment to allow yourself to simply “be” and connect with your self-awareness, but don’t project it onto the team. You won’t always be successful. Sometimes we do project, but when you do if you can own it and recognize your projection you will continue to build a trusting relationship with your team and demonstrate your true strengths as a leader.

Fear is a motivational and destructive force in business. No one wants to fail. If we can understand and own our own fears and not project them on others, we will discover that engaged team members are far more creative and productive than frightened ones.

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about how to apply these concepts at work? Our newly released Primers provide a concise overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies of Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control, as well as an overview of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model itself.

The Primers are created by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, with several fellow thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research, including Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard J. Davidson, and George Kohlrieser.