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Taking the Helm: Manage your own emotional reaction before managing others’

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Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais 

I was recently working with two day-workers who were putting bottom paint on the hull. One of the day-workers was taking her time and doing what I considered to be a good job. The other day-worker seemed like he was only interested in getting done as quickly as possible and didn’t really care about the quality of the work. Indeed, all he seemed to want to do was catch up with the other day-worker, since she was ahead of him on the hull. 

I thought I had clearly explained to both of them what I wanted done and how to do it, and had clearly set the expectations for the job. Nonetheless, I got frustrated with the day-worker who was rushing.

I was frustrated because I could see he was missing spots as he moved along. He also went through three white painting suits in an hour and was covered in paint. I pointed out where he was missing spots and asked him to slow down and pay attention to the details of the job, which would also help him not get paint everywhere. He said he would slow down, and his job improved as he moved along.

For my part, my frustration was triggered by an inability to direct such a worker as much as by his sloppiness itself. He was doing the job his way, not my way. I should have included in my instructions simple things – such as not covering himself in paint and being careful with the painting suits –  instead of taking them for granted.

This insight comes from having emotional awareness, which helped me identify why I felt the way I did. Here are some things to consider to build emotional awareness:

Ask yourself if you’ve set clear expectations from the beginning. When you think you’ve clearly laid out what you want and described how to do it, yet the plan isn’t working out, maybe you haven’t been as clear as you think. Step back and think about how you are responsible for the plan derailment.

Ask yourself what part you had in whatever led to an emotional reaction. Becoming frustrated or angry about something, getting upset and laying blame on everyone else doesn’t help resolve anything. It just makes you feel better for a few minutes. If you get angry or annoyed, you need to look at what part you played in any problems that arose while a project was underway. You may not have done everything necessary to set others up for success. Look inward so that the same thing doesn’t happen in the future.

Ask for feedback. Get feedback from teammates to be better in the future. Maybe you didn’t consider something others saw, or perhaps you weren’t as clear as you thought you  were. Either way, ask others for insight when possible. 

Pay attention to emotions. It’s easy to let frustration get the better of you. Take a breath and remember, your emotions and reactions primarily have to do with you. We can’t turn off our emotions, but how we respond to them in the heat of the moment speaks volumes to others.

Direct your anger. When angry or frustrated, direct the emotion towards a situation, not a person. This lets people around you know you’re angry, but no one is on the receiving end of the outburst. 

The only person you can control is yourself. When you get upset, angry or annoyed with the people on your team, understand that it’s your reaction that you have to control. Being upset has something to do with you, not the other person or people. 

While a situation may trigger an emotional response in you, it’s up to you to control your reaction to it. Will you take out your anger, annoyance or frustration on those around you? Or will you take a breath, reflect and – as hard as it will be – try to replace the emotional response with a rational one? Remember, how you act will affect how others respond to your leadership.  

Capt. Paul Ferdais, a former first officer and owner of The Marine Leadership Group, recently served as a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.

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