Article By Jill Ratliff

Do you think you have good self-control?

Most of us think we do—but often suddenly find we don’t. Yet self-control is one of the most important skills a leader can develop to engender trust and support collaboration. Nothing fractures trust and discourages open collaboration like the fear of an uncontrolled negative reaction in times of stress. Team members who fear their leader’s response to stress or errors are not likely to think and act creatively, and innovatively.

And make no mistake: self-control is a skill, not a character trait. You aren’t born with self-control; you have to learn it and practice it.

Self-control is your ability to manage your response to any situation. It’s the ability to be confronted with a situation, however stressful, dire, or even infuriating, and choose not to respond with anger or frustration, but rather with an even temper, kindness, and compassion. It’s the ability to remain conscious of your own emotions even under difficult circumstances, when an employee makes a serious mistake or doesn’t live up to your expectations, or when business takes an unexpected turn that requires decisive action. In the real world, we can’t change anybody else, all we can change is our reactions. Look closely at the word “responsibility” and you’ll see it breaks down to our ability to respond. Learning to control our responses to be productive rather than reactive helps build strong teams and, as a result, successful outcomes.

Self-control is a habit we can develop over time. How can you develop better self-control? Here are a few tips and practices to help.


Become conscious: The first step to exercising self-control is recognizing situations where you are at risk of losing it. Notice, consciously, when negative emotions arise and name those negative emotions, specifically. Are you frustrated? Angry? Disappointed? By going from an unconscious to a conscious reaction, you have taken the first step towards choosing your response rather than just mindlessly going with the negative flow. We are energy beings, and your energy—negative or positive—affects not only you, but the people around you.


Notice your negative self-talk: According to research, we think 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day and the vast majority are negative. Those negative thoughts churn up negative energy and drain you of positive energy. After all, if you’re beating yourself up, doesn’t it make sense that you might then turn that negativity outward too? Becoming mindful of your negative self-talk and choosing to instead turn your thoughts toward the positive is great training for choosing to respond differently to situations you confront.


Practice conscious breathing: We can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air. Breath is life and our bodies need more air than most of us give ourselves when we don’t do it consciously. When you feel negativity start to get the better of you, pause for a moment of conscious breathing. Inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, and exhale for 5 second. Repeat 5 to 10 times. You’re bound to feel better after this refreshing pause.


Practice physical and spiritual self-care: Physical and spiritual depletion can bring on negative energy. Pay attention to how you treat your body. Changing bad habits like stress eating or neglecting exercise not only helps you feel more positive, it’s a good way to start training yourself to manage your reactions. You could, for example, choose one eating habit you would like to change and start working on that, noticing when you are about to indulge it and consciously choosing not to. When you have mastered that habit, move on to another one. This exercises the self-control muscle.
In addition, allow yourself time to explore, understand and nourish your spiritual beliefs. In fact, without imposing your personal beliefs on others, you can also nourish the spirituality of your workplace with actions like an educational services company called Mindvalley, which has an annual “Love Week,” during which employees perform random acts of kindness like buying lunch for a coworker or leaving notes of appreciation on others’ desks. Honoring the humanity of your employees is a spiritual practice in itself.


Stay cognizant of the big picture: It can be easy for leaders to be pulled into interoffice, petty problems and negativity, but if you can take a step back and keep an eye on the larger goals of the workplace—remembering that you’re all pulling in the same direction—you will be more likely to be able to respond calmly, untangle the problem, and defuse the situation.


Put these practices together: Next time you are confronted with a stressful situation and feel negative energy building up, pause, breathe, shut down any negative self-talk, name the negative emotion you’re feeling, acknowledge to yourself the humanity of the people involved, step back for a big-picture view, and choose to respond calmly and productively.

These steps are simple even if they’re not always easy. But if you can train yourself to practice self-control no matter what challenges you face, you will have taken a crucial step toward becoming the kind of leader that employees trust and will follow wherever you lead.

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