How to Maintain Emotional Balance When Things Go Bad

In every organization, there are sometimes big changes and it can be hard to maintain emotional balance through each situation.You may be thinking, “Sure, it is easy to use the tools you mention when things are going well, but what happens when things go bad?” Just because there are changes that may affect your position, it does NOT require that it affects your emotions in a negative way.

Several situations could be categorized as difficult for leaders to work through: downsizing, merging, restructuring, relocating, new leadership, project failure, ethical and moral failure, just to name a few. Basically, any situation involving a change that does not give you a positive feeling. These situations don't have to be awful, but they encompass any kind of change that takes you out of your normal routine, which can make them difficult.

When there has been a breakdown in your company, it doesn’t feel good. Tensions are high and people are on edge emotionally. Realizing the emotion exists and not allowing the negativity to drag you down is the skill. This is emotional resilience. Bad things are going to happen.


How can you as a leader work on your own resilience to be able to lead others to see a brighter day ahead?

The first step in being a resilient leader in times of tension and complexity is to be aware of and manage your emotion. In an issue of Leadership Quarterly, Laura Little, Janaki Gooty, and Michelle Williams take on the topic of "the role of leader emotional management." The authors studied 163 leaders and their followers and concluded that when followers perceive that the leader was managing emotion, focusing on meeting expectations, and creating a future, followers felt better about the leadership being provided. Conversely, when followers perceive that leaders modulate or suppress their emotion, there is a lack of leadership and job satisfaction on the part of the follower.

What can you do as a leader to create better leadership in times of tension and complexity? How can you focus on meeting expectations while creating hope and a future for your followers when times are tough?

Here is a simple acronym that can help you stay in CHECK during difficult situations:

Consider the Situation

Take note of what's going on and how it is affecting you, your relationships, and your team. Can you describe the situation clearly and objectively, then identify the emotion it brings up and why? Are your emotions creating false expectations that need to be managed?

Hear from Others

Who are two or three people you trust that can speak into the situation? Identify individuals inside and outside of what's going on that can help you think and act productively as you figure out what to do. Don't spend too much time doing this, or else you become subject to the opinions of too many people and fall into a pit of gossip and negativity, which brings us to our “E."

Eliminate Negativity

This is easier said than done but necessary. Pessimism indicates that there's absolutely no hope or no solution to what's going on, and that's just simply not true. Whether it's coming from yourself or from others, be sure that what you are hearing and thinking will be constructive and productive. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association tells us we need to develop a “positive explanatory style." This is not “The Power of Positive Thinking” we all have heard about. It is much deeper than this. Seligman says, “What you think when you fail is crucial.“ How you explain things to yourself when they don’t go your way is the difference between helplessness and being energized.

Create a Plan - Organize and Carry Out

You've thought about it and talked about it, now it's time to decide what you will do about it. Start with the outcome you hope to have and work backward, documenting the steps you need to take to reach that outcome. The key here is to describe what success looks like to you before you implement the plan.

Keep Your Head Up - Stay Consistent, Present, and Motivated

We know it's not going to be easy, but no matter what happens you have the ability to take a deep breath, stay positive, and keep going. What are some things you can do to remove yourself from what's going on, clear your head, and rejuvenate yourself to stay in the game?


Think about this acronym and how you can apply to a difficult situation you are facing. Write CHECK on a note and stick it somewhere you can see it as a reminder of this process. When you see it, think about how you can apply it to the things causing tension for you and your organization.

Are You Emotionally Agile?

Change is really hard!

I am experiencing this reality for myself and it is tough. Here is a bit of what change is looking like in my leadership development practice.

Let me start by writing that I am blessed beyond measure to work personally with many of you who read this post every week. You are so patient with me as I lament stories and try and apply good leadership theory to practice. I count it a real privilege to be invited into, what I consider to be, the sacred space of helping you develop into the leader you want to be.

This is a blessing I do not take lightly or for granted.

My Change Story

My leadership development work seems like it is changing. The feeling is palpable for me. For the last eight or nine years, I would say that 50% of my work has been in some aspect of training leaders in the area of emotional intelligence in live workshop formats. The other half of the work has been focused on one-on-one coaching to develop leaders using multi-rater feedback or as a thinking partner. For solo practitioners such as myself, this is a fairly common mix.

What has driven this 50/50 mix has been based primarily upon the work that my clients have had available. And as I have been in discussion with most of my clients around what 2019 is going to bring there is a lot of ambiguity, which is not at all comforting. For anyone! Not for me, nor for the clients that I serve.

This change is really hard. Any change that feels like you are losing something is what psychologists call Ambiguous Loss. According to Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss, “those confronted with such ambiguous loss fluctuate between hope and hopelessness. Suffered too long, these emotions can deaden feeling and make it impossible for people to move on with their lives.” However what I am experiencing in my own personal change is that all is not lost.

And I think this is true for most of us. We need to see the hope that change can bring.

Emotional Agility

So, as I have been thinking about these changes over the past few weeks a range of feelings have swept over me.

Being emotionally agile starts with recognition of this range.

Here is what I experienced:

1) Rejection. My first thought was to ignore or dismiss the change, to pretend it was not real and to just sit back and see what would happen. This idea of rejecting reality is like being frozen in time. If I do nothing and just sit here, then maybe things will go back to the way they were in the past.  

The emotional intelligence competency to pay attention to is Reality Testing. This emotional competency challenges us, as leaders, to remain objective by seeing things as they really are. This challenges leaders to recognize when emotions or personal bias can cause one to be less than objective.

As I have been thinking through my current situation, to reject the change is to not see it as really happening, I realized this first stage is not serving me as a leader at all.

Time to move on…

2) Understanding. This step in becoming emotionally agile is really about intellectualizing that the change is happening and trying to understand the reason behind all of the change dynamics. Folks who are in this phase of emotional agility thirst for information like a heat-seeking missile. The fallacy in this phase is that if I just have more information and understand the change better then it will all be ok. Those stuck in this phase may feel a sense of false security as they gain information, but are not doing anything with it. The information is intellectualized but the receiver of the change stays right where they are, not doing anything with the information they have learned.

The emotional intelligence competency to pay attention to is Problem Solving. This emotional competency challenges leaders to find solutions to problems where emotions are involved. Notice that the skill here is to find the solution, not to sit and think about the problem or to make sure you understand all of the inputs into the change progress. The capacity of problem solving is to understand how emotions impact decision making and then move toward a solution for the problem.

3) Moving. This step in becoming emotionally agile is about finding clarity in the change you are experiencing and trying something new. I think clarity is huge in this stage. It is so hard to move toward something that is not clear to you. The other day I went for a run in the rain and for the first few miles it was great. Then I hit such a downpour that I could not see even a few feet in front of me. I had to slow down to a walk because the path was not clear. The same becomes true for those of us who are ready to move to a new reality. We have to have some clarity of vision so that we feel safe moving forward.

The emotional intelligence competency to pay attention to here is Optimism. This emotional competency challenges leaders to keep a positive outlook on life. The main idea is to remain hopeful and resilient despite the occasional setbacks experienced during change. Optimism becomes critical because of the ambiguity during change. We are going to have setbacks that we didn’t experience in our old reality. For me, business just kept rolling in from my clients year after year. That is now changing, so I am going to have to change with it and there will be setbacks along the way. The goal is to remain optimistic for the future.

4) Integration. The final step in becoming emotionally agile is to make the change a part of you. To accept the change, revise your beliefs and assumptions that you make about how you will proceed moving forward. Difficult change really is not about the choices you have in front of you. It is more about your values and how you want them expressed in the new reality.

The emotional intelligence competency to pay attention to here is Self-Regard. The idea here is to keep your self-respect while understanding your strengths and weaknesses. As the change is happening, you are still the same gifted and talented person you were prior to the change. It is really fundamental to come to grips with the idea that while your circumstance has changed, your giftedness has not.


I have realized these four steps in my own life about becoming more emotionally agile. How about you? What is your experience? Could focusing on emotional intelligence help you or your organization become more agile with the change you are experiencing? If so drop me a line, I would love a chance to talk with you about your current change.

What if I Don’t Want to Change?

What is it about change that makes it so difficult for people to process?

Is it the overall complexity that change brings? Or is it the level of comfort that existed prior to the precipitating change event?

One aspect that I have been thinking about recently is that our aversion may not be to the change itself but the awareness that the current reality exists in concert with the new reality.

If the answer is yes to both of the above this makes for a confusing environment.

Consider the following story as an example:

As a member of an organization, “Bob” has a job to do that he has been doing for approximately 24 months. He is competent at the craft and has built some good relationships with people on his team and with this customers. As a matter of fact, Bob’s supervisor rated him as exceeding expectations last year which is really quite rare for only being on the job for 2 years.

Then all of a sudden, the organization says it needs to change how it operates. They have to become a more Holistic Organization. This new structure isn’t really going to be structure at all! It is more of a self-managed, self-organizing network of people who are going to get everyone closer to the customer and to each other. Out with bureaucracy, and hierarchy, and consensus.

The consultant who gives the presentation to the company called it a “Teal” Organization. Bob had to research it and learned it was something called Spiral Dynamics which is a new consciousness for business. Teal Organizations are agile, lean, flexible and responsive to the environment. It all sounded great until Bob started to get a little anxious. Like how flexible? So flexible that he won’t be needed? Feelings of real anxiety started to sweep over him.

Teal organizations, since they distribute decision making to the lowest levels of the organization, require a level of trust, emotional intelligence, creativity, and intuition not previously required. There is a great sense of the work that is being done is for the good of, indeed the survival of the organization and that the individual interests of the contributors are taking a back seat.

As Bob contemplates his old paradigm he feels paralyzed between the drive to consensus that used to exist and making decisions for the good of the organization (which by the way, Bob remembers is what consensus was supposed to do).

He wants very much to succeed in this new world order, but not sure exactly how to do that.

Yes that was it. How was he supposed to come to work today and be inclusive with all his business partners and at the same time make decisions on his own?

He feels tremendous uncertainty in what his role is and a lot of ambiguity in how he’s supposed to do his job.

And then, his wife says that maybe they should not have bought their new house.

This did not help calm his thinking.

Personal Example

I know how our protagonist in the above scenario feels. I remember when I first got married, in fact, my wife Kim and I were on our honeymoon. Now, for any person marriage brings on a very significant change. On the morning of my wedding I woke up single, but by 1 pm that afternoon I was married. This was a new reality that I did not fully understand.

I was excited about the change. I anticipated with a positive anxiety the reality that was ahead. And unlike many who experience change in an organization, I was a willing participant who was choosing this destiny.

For our honeymoon, my bride and I set off on a Caribbean cruise. Seven fun-filled days just the two of us. On our first night at sea, we were walking to dinner. I was so excited to eat because the number one thing people told me about cruising was that the food is outstanding. Or, maybe it was the fact we had skipped lunch and I was famished. No matter, when I got to the dining room I turned around and Kim was nowhere to be found. Where could she be? So, I started retracing my steps and when I rounded the corner there she was…just standing…and waiting.

“Whats wrong?” I enquired. “Are you OK?”

“I am fine,” she said. Then she went on and delivered the truth that helped me realize my new reality. “You are married now, and I would really like to walk to dinner with you and not behind you.”

Ouch! What a change lesson that was for me.

My old paradigm of singleness was confronted with my new reality of being married. If I was going to be any good at this being married thing, then I had to understand what this new life was all about.

I am so thankful that I married a very patient woman. She has been at my side now for 34 years teaching me all about what it means to start something new.

The real key if you are experiencing dramatic change in your organization, or you are getting married, is to pay close attention to the relationships between people. For this new reality to be successful we have to replace our negative and anxious feelings with those of more positive outlook.

Being in the middle of change requires us to slow our thinking down and manage the anxieties we are experiencing.

Sure we will stumble at times, but let’s not forget that a step backward is not failure. It is just learning. No one, not even those leading the change in organizations know everything. We all need space to think and to understand what our new way forward looks like.

Are you in a Mini, Major, or Stormy Transition?

Many of the organizations I work with are going through major transitions right now. Some are growing and expanding while others are experiencing unprecedented contraction. The change seems to be showing up in a couple of very different ways.

Some folks are in mini-transition where they are gaining clarity around their life’s work; like an update of what has been happening in their lives over the past several years. These folks find themselves doing a new job, or on a new team, or maybe even relocating for an opportunity. It is a change they may or may not have been asking for, but alas they find themselves with some new opportunities ahead. While significant, and full of emotion, these mini-transitions keep the person on a similar life trajectory.

Then there are the life-impacting transitions where full-on change is happening in your life. Your circumstances are shifting entirely and rocking your entire world!

  • You have lost your job, through no fault of your own.

  • You have decided to retire and to give your talents to a local non-profit who really needs your leadership.

  • Your spouse has served you divorce papers after 25 years of marriage.

  • Or you experience the loss of a child.

Real loss. Devastating loss. The kind of loss that makes life seem like there is no way out.

Frederick Hudson writes, “…many people think of transitions [like this] as a penalty box, a place for losers, for quitters and weaklings-people who can’t take the heat, victims who thrive on self-pity and helplessness.” Many will seek to blame others; a bad boss, a spouse, or more likely God.

When you lose something you love, a job or a person it can seem like life itself is not worth living. Hudson writes, “the acceptance of an ending sounds like termination, humiliation, resignation, and defeat.”

However deep or devastating your transition, please take heart. However disorientating the change you are encountering, this experience is almost always a road to some kind of regenerative growth of you as a person and a discovery of some new and exciting you that is being created.

You really are a butterfly emerging from a cocoon…eventually.

But for now, it might feel like you are a caterpillar who just wants go into the basement, drink beer, and cry!

What to be aware of is how you are experiencing your transformation. Think of it as “The Meantime.”

The Meantime

When I was a kid, my mom used to talk a lot about the meantime. It was always mentioned as a time preparation as a transition was coming. It would go something like this:   

  • “Scott your father will be home in about an hour and in the MEANTIME you better get your room picked up.”  

  • “Scott you have basketball practice tomorrow morning and in the MEANTIME you better get your gym bag packed.”

  • “Eric (my brother) you have your piano lesson tonight, in the MEANTIME you better get practicing.”

As I reflect back when I was a kid the MEANTIME was always a time of storming. You see, I knew dad would be home in an hour, but a kid could play a lot of basketball in 60 minutes. Who in their right mind wants to stop playing ball and clean up there room?

The storm would begin to brew.

My mom would remind me. “You better get on it now. You can play ball when your room is done, but in the MEANTIME you better get moving."

After the second request to clean my room, she would invoke my middle name.

“Scott Robert!”

The pressure would rise with dad’s presence looming on the horizon. The stormy transition was fast approaching.  

We all experience stormy space in our meantime; the space that exists between “how nice it was before the transition” and “what it will be like when the transition is over.”

The question I have been asking myself a lot lately is, “When the meantime comes, how do I show up?”

Leaders, we need to be very aware of how we are showing up during times of transition. We need to ask ourselves what our behavior was like during the stormy transition. Are my actions those of a self-centered protectionist?

Am I becoming so focused on my own unfortunate circumstances that I am missing out on key relationships that could be a vehicle to restore my healing? Can I remain calm and have some clear thinking, vision, and self-introspection as events unfold around me?

Many of you are experiencing change and chaos going like never before. So, over the next several weeks I am going to write about going through these changes with skill and grace. Next week, I’m going to dive deeper in how to work through stormy transitions such as grief and loss.

I hope you enjoy the support. If you know of someone going through transition, why not send them the blog and encourage them to sign up. I would greatly appreciate it.