Travis Bradberry, author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, reports that 83 percent of people with high self-awareness are top performers, while only 2 percent of bottom performers display this trait. Why are self-aware people top performers? In large part because they channel that self-awareness into self-management: effectively managing their emotional reactions to situations, people, challenges, and difficulties in order to bring about the best outcome for all concerned.
I (Tim Thomas) can think of no better way to show the power of self-management than to tell the following story about my partner, Rip Tilden. So, with his permission, come back in time with me …
When Rip and I first became partners, he was the chairman of a senior executive networking group that met in Philadelphia. A primary objective of the group was to help members find new jobs or build their own businesses. Rip invited me to attend one of their monthly meetings which he was facilitating.
Two hours into the meeting, there was an open Q&A time. Unexpectedly, a guy got up and started to shred Rip about some issue. He didn’t just talk about the issue – he made it personal, launching a brutal verbal attack on Rip. It was terrible. Everybody in the room was cringing, awkwardly looking at the floor, the ceiling, or anywhere but at Rip and the fellow who was ranting.
But Rip never flinched. In as glorious a display of self-management as I have ever seen in a leader to this very day, Rip held his own emotions in check. He calmly paraphrased back point by point what the man was shouting about, stripping away the inflammatory language. The fellow began to de-escalate and agreed that Rip had accurately heard his concerns.
Then Rip calmly moved the meeting on to the next point on the agenda. No recriminations. No lashing out. No defensiveness. I sat there, lost in admiration. Rip’s polished response became a model for me of how to deal with difficult and verbally-abusive people.
Was Rip angry when the man attacked him? Absolutely. He told me later that he wanted to launch a counterattack that would have leveled the guy. But he didn’t. He was SELF-AWARE of his emotions and, because he was self-aware, he was able to make the decision in the heat of the moment to SELF-MANAGE how he responded. In doing so, Rip:
- Diffused a highly-volatile situation.
- Preserved the dignity of the man who attacked him.
- Assured the man that his concerns were heard.
- Brought everyone back to a comfortable state of mind.
- Kept the meeting on track and productive.
- Strengthened his own reputation as a capable leader.
Rip’s self-management helped everyone who was present. He made it clear through his choice of response that the meeting was a safe place, where even inappropriate behavior would be handled professionally.
The value of self-management cannot be overstated, since difficult situations arise all the time in the work environment. Someone opens their mouth and spouts off, a project goes off the rails, a vendor fails to come through … the scenarios are endless. As a leader, self-awareness of your emotions and self-management of how you respond can make or break how challenging situations turn out.
Rip knew in that meeting years ago that he had to keep the first thing the first thing. And the first thing was NOT himself. The first thing was accomplishing the mission of the group and supporting the good of every person who was present – including the good of the person who exploded at him. For that reason, he put his own emotions on hold and took control of the situation in a positive manner.
It would have been so easy to lash back at the person. It would have been understandable to end the meeting abruptly and walk out. But in managing his emotions, Rip demonstrated his integrity, prevented lasting damage to relationships, fulfilled his responsibilities as chairman, and drove a standard of excellence that everyone in the room would use as a benchmark going forward.
It needs to be emphasized that self-management does not mean denying your own emotions or letting yourself get walked over. It does not imply that you act like an emotionless automaton. Self-management is the ability to keep your own disruptive emotions and impulses under control so that you can act in a professional and appropriate manner in the moment. Later, when you are out of the situation, you can vent and process your own emotions – and you should. That is an important part of taking care of yourself.
Self-management applies to any emotion, not just the “hot” emotions. Leaders need to be able to manage their own anger, sadness, excitement, and everything in between. Again, this is an emotional intelligence skill that can be learned, developed, and refined. It all comes down to being aware of what is happening on the inside so that you can choose how you will respond on the outside.