Coaching Executives to Regulate Their Emotions: The Role of Mindfulness Strategies

10/11/2016 03:42 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2017

Business leaders today work under conditions of serious stress related to rapid technological change, global competition, uncertain market conditions, regulatory requirements, and other complex realities. They inevitably experience anxiety, worry, fear, frustration, irritability, anger, or other challenging emotions. Some individuals are highly skilled at managing these emotions and even using them to fuel their personal and career growth. Other individuals are more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed and at times cannot cope adaptively with high levels of stress.

Executives and other business leaders need to be careful as to how they manage strong emotions in workplace situations. Outbursts or other injudicious expressions of negative emotion - such as eye rolling, interrupting, insulting, or demeaning other people - are all-too-common examples of emotion dysregulation in the workplace. They can render a company's culture toxic, damage its reputation, and impair its productivity and profitability. In addition, emotionally dysregulated executives can derail their career growth, perhaps irreparably. As an executive coach, I have worked over the years with many clients whose emotion dysregulation resulted in failures to be promoted and even in firings.

Executive coaching can help clients to enhance their emotion regulation capacity. Mindfulness approaches, which involve development of non-judgmental self-awareness of mental and physical experiences in the moment, can play a pivotal role in this work. People can only think clearly and positively when they are calm and emotionally grounded. Research shows that mindfulness strategies, such as meditation and controlled breathing, can help clients immensely. These strategies can be usefully incorporated into people's workdays, even if they don't have time for a full-blown mindfulness practice for an extended period of time each day. Some corporations have begun to offer mindfulness workshops and seminars to help employees manage stress, increase productivity, improve interpersonal relationships, and enhance workplace satisfaction.

Executive coaching and mindfulness coaching can reinforce each other in powerful ways. An associate in my executive coaching practice, mindfulness coach Allison Abrams, worked with a client who was struggling with debilitating self-doubt that manifested itself in angry outbursts and impatience with others at work. He was extremely talented in his field, but his difficulty managing his anger threatened to compromise his future success. What finally led him to seek professional help was his being promoted to a management position that he "didn't want to mess up." Being in a leadership position for the first time, he worried that his former co-workers, who were now becoming his direct reports, would not respect him in this new role. He was perceived by some of his direct reports as aggressive and disconnected. Not surprisingly, team cohesion and productivity were at risk.

When mindfulness meditation was suggested, he at first laughed and explained that in a "high powered" position such as his, one did not have the luxury, nor the time, to engage in such a "self-absorbed hobby." He explained that "I have real responsibilities" and "the decisions I make on a day-to-day basis affect not only my company, but my entire industry and ultimately the economy. I don't have time to sit on a pillow for an hour lighting incense and chanting."

After learning that even a few minutes of mindfulness work each day is a start, and that incense and pillows are not required, he decided to give mindfulness meditation a try. Soon thereafter, it became a daily practice and significant part of his life. As he learned to step back and become more aware of his emotions, rather than being impulsively reactive to them, his communication skills and interpersonal relationships at work improved. This led to significantly increased productivity in the department and eventually another promotion. As an unintended, though not unexpected, by-product of his practice, he noted how much his personal relationships (including his marriage) had improved.

This kind of positive result is most likely when executive coaching and mindfulness strategies are integrated. Mindfulness strategies help clients to settle and focus their minds, so that they are well positioned to make the mindset shifts and behavior changes that their complex executive roles demand of them. Executive leaders with a highly developed capacity to regulate their emotions are the ones most likely to succeed in a competitive and globalized economy that demands top-tier stress management, strategic thinking, and interpersonal skills.