Managing Emotions at Work

These Techniques Could Change the Way You Feel at Work

Put a bunch of people in a room together and give them stressful tasks to complete on deadline, day after day, for years at a time. These people have varying personality types, and completely different skill sets, family backgrounds, cultural beliefs, insecurities, fears, and personal goals. While societal norms will dictate that the group interacts politely most of the time, the fact is that often there will be resentment bubbling beneath the surface, rumors circulating behind closed doors, and even the occasional aggressive outburst when the unspoken tension reaches a boiling point.

This is our life, at work, from a high-level perspective. When we’re mired in it, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees, and forget the fact that we’re really just a bunch of highly evolved primates sandwiched together to solve complex problems. We’re no longer determining how to use a blade of grass to infiltrate an ant hole; instead we’re sitting on the 37th floor of an office building at 7 p.m., honing a presentation for a big account with three separate teams who can’t seem to agree, even after 12 hours spent mulling it over.

It’s only natural that our emotions would sometimes get the better of us at work. In a 2015 survey[i], 1,500 respondents were asked to rank their biggest complaints at work, and the top 5 are likely to be all too familiar to you:

Road Blocks

Few things are more frustrating than when a co-worker is late delivering a key facet of a project, and winds up stalling the progress.

Lack of Prioritization

Being asked to constantly switch between tasks rather than focus on a prioritized list causes confusion and stress. Multitasking causes the body to release the stress chemical cortisol[ii], increasing the sense of being overwhelmed.

Unrealistic Expectations

Management sets a goal that simply cannot be completed by the front lines in the time span allotted. A classic communication issue.

Shifting Deadlines

You think you have three weeks left, but the client switches the deadline to 10 days away. It’s a fact of our fast-paced modern era, and it causes a lot of stress.

Unclear Goals

Being unsure about what your boss expects from you places you in a sense of uncertainty, constantly wondering whether you’re performing up to snuff.

Why Happiness Matters

There’s a wealth of research about the benefits of being happy in the workplace. As we’ve discussed in a previous blog post, fulfilled, engaged employees are more productive, have fewer sick days, and are less likely to quit, saving the costs associated with high turnover rates. The financial impact of actively disengaged employees has been estimated at $300 billion[iii] a year in the U.S. alone. That’s an enormous figure that could easily be changed if we put the time into encouraging better habits around managing stress and enhancing positive interactions.

“Whether it is a failure, a sideways comment from a colleague, a meeting that is full of disconnection and frustration, or a feeling of rising resentment when asked to do more than someone else, we’re hooked, and we weren’t taught the skill that the most resilient among us share: Slow down, take a deep breath, and get curious about what’s happening.” – Brené Brown, “Dare to Lead”

Simple Habits to Manage Emotions at Work

Often, the most complicated problems have the most simple solutions. The single most important habit we can adopt to help manage our emotional response at work is to slow down and pay attention to the present moment. Try following these 4 easy steps:

1. Pay Attention

When you feel emotionally triggered by an event at work, pause and pay attention to the thoughts in your head, and the way your body is reacting. Are you clenching your jaw? Balling your fists? Is your chest tight? Are your shoulders raised?

2. Resist the Temptation

When we experience a stressful event, the part of our brain responsible for emotional processing, the Amygdala, sends a distress signal to Hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus sends out a “fight or flight” response to our body. Our first instinct may be to lash out, to complain, vent, try to “one-up” a colleague, or recoil from conflict entirely. Don’t succumb to this urge.

3. Focus on the Breath

Take a minute to slow down and take some mindful breaths. Try square breathing: Breathe in for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and pause for a count of 4. Repeat 3 times.

4. Get Curious

Now that you’re calmer, ask yourself some questions about what’s really happening. What story are you telling yourself about the incident, and is it the whole truth? Do you have enough information to be upset? If so, is being upset helping to solve the problem?

Overall, anything that you can do to gain a little perspective will help you gain the emotional distance necessary to think clearly about the situation at hand. Will this incident matter in a matter of hours? Days? Months? Years? If not, shift your attention away from the emotional charge, and onto taking positive action.

How SIGMA Can Help

For more than 50 years, SIGMA has focused on assessment and leadership backed by science. We help maximize your talent with a measurement-driven approach designed to quantify and develop people potential and increase organizational effectiveness.

Our mindfulness training has helped countless leaders learn how to better manage their emotions at work, leading to happier, more productive teams. For more information on our programs, contact us today.

[i], “5 Things That Stress Us Out the Most at Work”,

[ii] Psychology Today, “The Unintended Consequences of Multi-Tasking”,

[iii], “Boosting Employee Happiness Will Increase Your Bottom Line”,

About the Author

Brittney Anderson, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant & Executive Coach

Brittney is a member of our coaching and consulting team. She brings her expertise in evidence-based practice to provide companies with leadership solutions that meet their needs. Primarily, Brittney helps her clients prepare for their future with succession planning and comprehensive leadership development programs. As an executive coach, she helps leaders hone their skills using a process-based approach to development.