Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost

I think about that part of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” poem fairly often. Not so much because of the poem itself, but what it means to walk out. I also think about it as a leader having to make strategic decisions moment by moment. One of those decisions we all make every day, and that’s the decision to self-regulate when it comes to handling ourselves around others. I wanted to briefly talk about what self-regulation is, why it is important for leaders, and how we can utilize it more deliberately in our professional interactions.


Defining Self-regulation

Simply put, Self-regulation is a statement and demonstration of calmness in any given situation. It is being able to control your emotions and responses to situations and other people. It’s something I have to incorporate throughout my professional and personal lives (especially this time of year), and I’m sure you do, too. How do you handle traffic jams? What is your response when you’re yelled at in a meeting, or if you’re blamed for a mistake that was not your fault? The answer to those questions will reveal how good you are at self-regulation.

The difference between good and not-so-good self-regulation is like comparing a shaken bottle of a carbonated beverage and a shaken bottle of water. When you open a shaken bottle of Pepsi, the contents spew all over the place and ruins everything. That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to react to negative circumstances. Our emotions fly out and negatively impact everything in their path. Oftentimes, those negative contents and responses hit people who were not responsible at all for the outburst. That can have a devastating effect on our relationships and how people see us.

Instead, good self-regulation is like opening an agitated bottle of water. No matter how much it is dropped, shaken, rolled or jiggled, when someone opens it, there is no spewing. There are no accidents. There’s only…tranquility. We can respond like that bottle of water, but we have to choose to do so. It’s so much easier to react and let feelings and emotions fly. Yet, like the poem, choosing the road less traveled, the self-regulated road, will make all the difference.

Why Self-regulate?

The primary reason to focus on self-regulation is that it generally promotes a more positive response, interaction and answer in any given situation. As a leader, you will be faced with all types of responsibilities. Some you’ll love, and some you won’t. Regardless, if you want to be successful and stand at the top of your field, you will have to learn to naturally respond to circumstances with maturity and tact, even when things don’t go your way.

Think about toddlers in this instance. One will pitch a fit and throw a tantrum when he doesn’t get the cookie he wants. However, the toddler who learned to use her words and ask, “Cookie please, Mommy?” may get much more understanding (and more rewards) because of how she handled the situation. The same applies in the professional world. If you don’t get the promotion you expected, you have two choices (like the poem). You can rant and rave at the top of your lungs. You could spread rumors about the person who got the promotion. You could quit. OR, you could ask what you can do better in your job performance. You could support the new person in the role. Neither of the last two suggestions is easy, but they show maturity and respect: two characteristics that won’t go unnoticed.

Tips for Self-regulating

There are several relatively simple things you can do to start your journey towards self-regulation. First, recognize your emotions. Don’t feel like you have to suffocate them or pretend they don’t exist. Your emotions are real, and they matter. But you can think about different ways to channel emotional energy in tense situations. When I’m anxious or angry, I will physically hold and squeeze the meat between my thumb and forefinger as a way to recognize my feelings. It doesn’t hurt or affect anyone, and it allows me to channel energy in a manner that fosters self-regulation for myself.

Next, take time to process your feelings and emotions. Don’t send a response to the meeting right after. Go home and think about what happened (or didn’t happen). Write your thoughts out. Talk them out with someone you trust, and process things with them. Remove yourself from the negative environment or situation for a while. This will help give you a different perspective and outlook for positive solutions.

Finally, get to know your triggers and anger buttons. What are the things that you know upset you? Are there any buzzwords or familiar circumstances that rile you up emotionally? Get to know those things! As the saying goes, knowing is half the battle. The other half is finding alternative ways to deal with your triggers. Make a plan, rehearse it, and make it a part of your life, personally and professionally.

Here’s the bottom line: true leaders are not reactive. They are proactive. A large part of being proactive is knowing how to respond in positive ways and channeling emotions in the same manner. I encourage you to learn what self-regulation is for you and begin walking that path today.

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