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Brain circuits

Managing mixed emotions at work

Published 23 December 2021 in Brain circuits • 4 min read

The ongoing pandemic and its uncertainties bring on a range of emotions. As a leader, you need to set the example and understand what is happening on your team.

Impulse control

Impulse control is about self-insight and subsequent self-regulation. You need to be able to answer the question ‘How do you avoid getting caught up in emotional rollercoasters?’ – and to do so without thinking about it twice.

It’s all about monitoring and regulating yourself from being too “hot” or “too cold” and avoiding getting distracted by self-absorption.

As Shai Weiss, the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, kept repeating to his team as the heavy clouds of the pandemic came into view for the airline: “It’s not about money. It’s not about ego. It’s about survival.”

Photo of a thermometer with snow on

The exercise

Step 1

Let’s imagine you are being “too cold” in your emotional responses as a leader right now, which would amount to not creating enough psychological safety in the current climate, perhaps just because you are too laidback or somewhat emotionally numbed from long stretches of working from home.

There is a natural tendency to become more lax about restrictions and policies, simply because people are worn down and want things to be normal.

Jot down some ideas on how you might rectify this and compare with mine:

  1. Keep the standards high: Make certain that the work environment is safe and healthy, for instance by providing access to testing, medical advice and psychological support for anxieties over about mental wellbeing.
  2. Reconnect with employees – new and old: Many people report having to overcome a sort of social awkwardness when they return. And don’t forget I recommend that anyone onboarded during COVID needs a new “day one”. Even though they are. strictly speaking, not new employees any longer, the need to be welcomed and mentored as if they were.
  3. Kickstart the good cultural habits anew: Provide structured feedback to make sure people develop and grow, encourage office chatter and 1:1 conversations and small gatherings to celebrate milestones and achievements.

Step 2

Now let’s imagine you are doing the opposite – being “too hot” in your emotional responses. The key indicator is that you start binging on initiatives and become overexcited about back-to-back meetings and new projects in the beginning and then you become disappointed and overwhelmed when they don’t live up to your expectations.

How might you keep this risk of “overshoot and collapse” at bay? Write down your initial thoughts and then compare with mine:

  1. Consult with a safe pair of hands around you: Think about who will keep you grounded in situations in which things seem hectic: a trusted advisor, a good colleague, a partner or spouse who knows you well.
  2. Do a quick reality check by listing all those new ideas on a whiteboard or post-its: Each initiative may feel like little strokes of genius when they arise in your mind, but seeing them together as a massive collage should spark the question, “Am I working on the right priorities?” Force yourself to rank each idea and then pick 3 to focus on at a time and commit to really making an impact with each.
  3. Book daily white space in your calendar for those moments of reflection where you step back and ask yourself: If I were to give myself a piece of advice right now, what would it be? It will help you distance yourself from the heat and lead with purpose, rather than impulse.
“It’s not about money. It’s not about ego. It’s about survival”
Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic

Finally, keep your temperature regulated by asking yourself these four questions, in this order:

  1. What situations make you slip out of character?
  2. In these situations, who or what exactly triggers that behavior?
  3. Before you get to this point, what are the warning signs that you are on the way towards letting your impulses run the show?
  4. Who or what gets you back on track?


Further reading

The Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior by Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg


Merete Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders. She runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.


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