How to harness emotional resilience to create a positive impact in leadership roles

female leader, emotional resilience

Chances are that in the course of your career you’ve taken personality tests like Myers Briggs to determine your working and leadership style.

But when was the last time anyone provided you with resources to determine your emotional intelligence?

This ‘softer’ side of leadership development is often overlooked but can make a significant difference to your performance. Your emotional intelligence is a measure of how well you are able to perceive and manage your own emotions and those of others. This ability is what enables successful interactions with your environment and those you come into contact with and is integral to positive leadership.

Agile leadership starts with you

Emotional intelligence is just one aspect of the psychological flexibility you must develop in order to thrive professionally. This adaptability is particularly important when in any position of power – leadership must start from within if you are to maintain a cohesive, productive working environment.

Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • A sense of over-commitment
  • An imbalance between effort and reward
  • Being overworked
  • A lack of physical exercise
  • An inability to ask for help
  • A lack of boundaries.

These are all characteristics of an ‘unfit’ leader. That isn’t to say that you aren’t leadership material, rather that there is positive work you can do to build greater emotional resilience and create a sense of psychological safety within your workplace. Psychological safety refers to a situation where there is reduced volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, creating an environment ideal for innovation and growth.

Transition away from the ‘Grey Space’

Can you remember a time recently when you overreacted to something at work – perhaps with an ill-advised retort, an aggressive action or spending a whole day worrying about the meaning of a comment from a colleague? These behaviours are all the result of immediate, overwhelming responses driven by the emotional part of your brain before a rational response has the chance to kick in. This is known as an amygdala hijack, referring to the area of the brain which is dictating your responses.

This process is the result of your fight/flight stress response being activated, flooding your system with hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Being in this state hampers your cognitive abilities, including decision making, problem solving and personal interactions. This is clearly not going to be beneficial to your performance at work but the good news is that you can gain control over your responses. Once you’ve empowered yourself, you can slowly move away from what I term the ‘Grey Space’ – otherwise known as the edge of burnout or the area in which the boundaries between coaching and therapy blur – towards a more balanced approach.

Invest in your psychological wellbeing

Just as you regularly update your qualifications and refresh your skillset, your psychological wellbeing deserves constant attention and development. If you are proactive in acquiring the toolkit of skills you need to take preventative measures against stress and, ultimately burnout, you will also find your performance improves. To be an agile leader requires the ability to be psychologically flexible and to manage and adapt to change easily.

This is not always straightforward but a psychophysiological approach can make a huge difference. This involves taking the view that stress develops from the interaction of environmental demands (all the external circumstances you deal with throughout your daily life) and your individual resources or your capacity to cope. The result is psychophysiological responses – thoughts and emotions accompanied by hormonal changes and bodily reactions. Drawing on a range of techniques and tools to holistically address the mind-body nature of stress can be extremely helpful.

Developing an awareness of your responses to situations and stressors allows you to regain control over your reactions and move forward with a positive approach. A lot of the work I do, particularly with women in the workplace, focuses on a Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC) approach of Undoing, Doing, Redoing – undoing unhelpful ways of thinking; doing the work to learn new skills; redoing by implementing these skills and building more positive beliefs and ways of thinking.

Undo those unhelpful thoughts

When was the last time you didn’t put yourself forward for an opportunity because you weren’t sure you fulfilled 100% of the criteria, only to watch a less qualified male colleague reach out and take it without a qualm? This gender gap of low work-related self-confidence among women relative to the confidence levels of the men they work with is a crucial example of an area where CBC can make a huge difference.

Those sneaky thoughts you’ve had about not being good enough, imposter syndrome kicking in after a promotion? Those are known as cognitive distortions and they need breaking down! Try applying the following three questions when you next notice yourself experiencing unhelpful thoughts – What is the evidence? Is this rational? Is it helpful? By taking the time to deconstruct the unhelpful beliefs and blocks you have developed over the years, you can reframe your thinking and move forward with greater emotional resilience.

The drive to thrive

Once you’ve moved those blocks out of your own way, you will find yourself empowered to harness your untapped potential and flourish in your leadership role. With the awareness and skills in place to proactively manage your stress you will find that you move away from the characteristics of that ‘unfit’ leader towards a far more positive picture featuring:

  • Self-awareness
  • Ability to ask for support
  • Protected boundaries
  • Realistic expectations and flexible attitude
  • A sense of control
  • Robust personality and professional self-efficacy.

Next time your organisation offers you another personality test or seminar on successful leadership, why not ask for a more holistic approach? Taking the time to invest in your psychological wellbeing will give you the confidence to thrive and in doing so can support other women around you to do the same.

Lauretta Cundy HeadshotAbout the author

Lauretta Cundy, MSc, Psych is a Coaching Psychologist who works with women and organisations around the world to support and strengthen ambitious and agile careers. Lauretta is currently undertaking a Doctorate, researching the ‘Grey Space’ – otherwise known as the edge of burnout or the area in which the boundaries between coaching and therapy blur.

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