Self-Regulation: How To Develop It & Become A Better Leader

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Self-regulation, or self-management, is a critical component of Emotional Intelligence. It refers to the ability of individuals to manage their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in a flexible and effective manner.

It enables people to maintain their goals, adhere to their values, and respond adaptively to changing circumstances and create and sustain effective relationships.

Key Points:

  • Self-regulation is a process involving different mechanisms, such as attention control, emotion regulation, impulse control and goal setting.
  • Being able to self-regulate, control emotions and behaviours and resist impulses can allow you to become a stronger leader.
  • Your own self-regulation can be improved by bridging the gap between your thoughts, emotions, and actions – sometimes referred to as “mind the gap” theory. 

What is meant by self-regulation?

Self-regulation is a crucial component of mental and physical well-being, and it is essential for success in many aspects of life, such as school, work, and relationships.

Self-regulation is a complex process that involves several different mechanisms, including:

  • Attentional control: This refers to your ability to focus on a specific task and filter out distractions.
  • Emotion regulation: How you manage your emotional responses, including reducing negative emotions and increasing positive ones.
  • Impulse control: Resisting acting on urges and impulses, even in the face of tempting or challenging people or situations.
  • Goal setting and pursuit: If you can set and pursue objectives effectively, including breaking down complex goals into manageable tasks.

How does self-management help you in leadership?

Self-management helps in leadership by allowing you to better regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviours, leading to increased emotional intelligence, communication skills, resilience and decision-making ability.

This in turn fosters trust, credibility through consistency of behaviour, and ultimately, effectiveness as a leader.

💡A working example of self-regulation💡

If you are facing a challenging situation – perhaps a tight deadline for a major project – good self-management would mean you’re able to take a step back and work with your team to analyse the objective and the most effective route there. Your team will learn to trust your decisions and benefit from your reliability, which makes for a more positive and relaxed working environment for all.

If you were to panic, make rushed and erratic decisions just to get the job done, your team might not feel like they can rely on you to lead them to success.

Why do we tend to react rather than respond?

People tend to react rather than respond because of unconscious automatic processes in the brain. Reactions are impulsive, knee-jerk responses to stimuli, often taking a few milliseconds. On the opposite end of the scale, responses are deliberate and thought-out, and can take a few hundred milliseconds. So, it’s easier and quicker to react than wait to formulate a response.

Reactions are driven by unconscious patterns in the brain and are often a result of:

  • Emotional triggers: Certain stimuli, such as past experiences or memories, can elicit strong emotional responses that can cloud judgement and lead to reactive behaviour.
  • Lack of self-awareness: People may not be aware of their emotional states and triggers, leading them to react impulsively without considering the consequences.
  • Unlearned habits: Habitual patterns of behaviour, especially in high-stress situations, can become automatic and lead to reactive rather than responsive behaviour.
  • Social norms: Social norms and peer pressure can also contribute to reactive behaviour, as individuals may feel pressure to conform or react in a certain way.

Responding, on the other hand, requires conscious effort to slow down and assess the situation, consider multiple perspectives, and choose an appropriate course of action.

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How can I develop my ability to self-manage and become a better leader?

Improving self-regulation requires being aware of and bridging the gap between your thoughts, emotions, and actions – sometimes referred to as “mind the gap” theory. It involves recognising when there is a mismatch between what you intend to do and what you are actually doing and taking steps to bring these three elements into alignment.

By “minding the gap”, you are reminding yourself to stay mindful and intentional in your behaviour, instead of acting impulsively based on emotions or external stimuli.

Here are a few things to help you “mind the gap”:

#1. Recognise the cues

In your interactions, look for anytime you:

  • Feel something besides neutral or positive.
  • Have a physical response.
  • Keep replaying a conversation.
  • Are preoccupied with the issues away from work.

#2. Look out for body language and signals

Pay special attention to your body language and the physiological signals can help in mastering impulses, such as: 

  • Increased heart rate – which indicates stress or excitement.
  • Sweating – which can mean anxiety or anticipation.
  • Muscle tension – which might be preparation for fight or flight response.
  • Breathing patterns – which can reflect your level of relaxation or stress.
  • Crossing your arms – which can be interpreted as boredom or annoyance.
  • Hunching your shoulders – which shows uncertainty and tension.
  • Not making eye contact – which suggests disengagement and distraction.

Awareness and control of these physiological signals can help in regulating emotions and impulses. Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness can be useful in managing these signals and reducing impulsive behaviour.

#3. Watch out for the red mist!

“Red mist” is a figure of speech used to describe a state of intense anger or frustration that clouds a person’s judgement and leads to impulsive, irrational behaviour. The term is used to describe a momentary loss of self-control and a failure to think rationally in the face of strong emotions.

It is a similar figure of speech to the “green monster” of jealousy. Both can lead to rash decisions and actions that are often regretted later.

#4. Be mindful of your hot buttons.

“Hot buttons”, or “triggers”, refers to issues or topics that are very emotionally charged or sensitive, and likely to elicit a strong response or reaction from people.

Understanding your sensitive topics can help you with self-management by allowing you to anticipate and regulate your emotional and behavioural responses in challenging situations.

Knowing your hot buttons can help you:

  • Anticipate potential triggers: By being aware of what triggers you, you can prepare yourself to manage your emotions and behaviour effectively when they arise.
  • Regulate emotional responses: By understanding your hot buttons, you can develop strategies to manage your emotions before they escalate into unproductive or harmful reactions.
  • Foster empathy: By recognising what triggers others, you can respond to their reactions with understanding and compassion, reducing conflicts and improving relationships.
  • Promote self-awareness: Understanding your hot buttons can help you increase your self-awareness and lead to a better understanding of yourself and others.

You can develop and improve self-regulation through various means, such as mindfulness meditation, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), physical exercise, and healthy lifestyle habits. Additionally, several factors can influence the effectiveness of self-regulation, such as a lack of sleep, too much stress, and not enough support.

Self-regulation is a crucial component of personal and professional success, and it can be developed and improved through various means, such as emotional intelligence training. By cultivating attentional control, emotion regulation, impulse control, and goal setting and pursuit, you can enhance your ability to manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours effectively, leading to greater well-being, effective relationships and success in both work and general life.

Further reading:

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Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew is TSW's Head of Leadership & Management. He’s coached and mentored leaders and the senior management teams at international brands.
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