FounderFuel: Keeping it together when you’re feeling the pinch – a founders’ guide to emotion-regulation

I’m sure we’d all admit to having snapped at someone in the team when it wasn’t entirely justified.

Sure… maybe they’d made a mistake or something wasn’t going as planned – but we all know that isn’t the full picture driving your response.

Having discussed this with so many founders over the years, the ‘full picture’ has so much more to do with stress and worries over… well, runway running out, investors or customers being difficult, frustration over performance, disappointment, sadness… the list is long. We shoulder a lot as founders – much of which cannot be shared with the team.

We really feel those moments – they whirr away in the mind  – and inevitably that sometimes boils over, and impacts how we come across to others.

Whether they had a part to play or not in your frustrations, an emotion-filled response (be it snappy, short or grumpy!) is highly unlikely to get the best response (or results) from the other person, so how do we navigate the internal conflict?

Awareness is everything

The very fact so many have discussed this in our FounderCircle group-coaching shows the most valuable step – self-awareness. Without this you cannot exercise any level of emotion-regulation. Notice when your behaviours are not your norm, or how you’d like them to be. Keep an ear out for subtle feedback (or not-so-subtle jokes!) about your mood too, as this can signal others have seen a change perhaps before you have.

Get to grips with the neuroscience

When we respond in a less-than-ideal way, we’re going through a bit of what emotional-intelligence expert Daniel Goleman calls an ‘amygdala hijack’. The amygdala is one of the oldest parts of the brain, it is responsible for spotting danger and controls your stress responses. It has the capability to ‘hijack’ your prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of the brain. So when you are snappy, it’s likely that the amygdala has taken over somewhat. All it wants to do is shout “this [issue / mistake / problem – delete as appropriate] in front of you is URGENT and SCARY” resulting in the emotion fuelled response.

Take back control in the moment

Once we appreciate the neuroscience behind the response, it becomes far easier to accept the seemingly too-simple solutions in this situation: Your job is to get the prefrontal cortex back in control, and the easiest way to do that is to give it something to do – specifically counting to ten, or remembering a phone number, does a good job of shifting energy away from the amygdala. Even better, do counting and conscious breathing – this is emotion-regulation at its best because it’s reversing the amygdala hijack AND actually calming the amygdala physiologically too. Simply take a breath in through the nose and a long slow breath out the mouth and repeat, while you’re doing your counting. If you’re worried about the time it takes to do all this, create yourself a moment… a simple “Sorry, just give me a moment to think about this” will do the trick. Once the prefrontal cortex is back in control and your physiology has been calmed, you’ll actually BE in a position to think and respond effectively too.

Humble leadership shows strength

If you find that you’ve reacted in a way that doesn’t reflect your best, show strength and humility by apologising. It’s common to fear this route – not wanting to appear weak, perhaps – but the opposite is true: Extensive studies now show that being able to apologise and acknowledge mistakes leads to higher levels of trust and improves your credibility. There’s a correlation to this leadership trait and teams being more engaged and motivated, leading to improved retention too. Plus you’re modelling the kind of collaborative team behaviours you want in your team. Use “I” statements (rather than “you”) to convey your point, and this will help your apology land on the right side of authenticity. In some instances, there may be an issue that needs addressing with the other person too. If so, it would be best to find a time, separate to the apology, to deliver specific feedback using “I” statements, where the Direct Feedback Framework is your go-to.

Tackle the real issue – part 1: Call out those emotions

Once the immediate incident has been resolved, it’s time to turn to the cause – those pesty emotions and the stressors that are accumulating to cause them. Recognizing your emotions is a superpower (this comes from someone who suppressed emotions so badly, I gave myself chronic stress disorder). Take a step back and label the emotions you are/were feeling – this is the first step to addressing them constructively. Writing them down makes a big difference too. Your brain will want to jump to the practical reasons – the why – but keep coming back to the feeling. Angry, sad, frustrated, disappointed… Naming the emotion, and just really focusing on that feeling for a moment, has a powerful way of taking the wind out of its sails.

It’s easy to think that opening this emotions box is dangerous – like you’ll never be able to shut it again – and you’re too busy to cope with that. But emotions don’t go away – they just get stored up and will come back stronger next time so it is far more powerful to grasp them and process them in this way.

Tackle the real issue – part 2: Make a plan

As someone who loves a plan , we could argue I’m biased on this one, but there is neuroscience behind this final step too. As founders, we are forever having to juggle scenarios (“Plan A is ideal but if X happens we’ll go to plan B, plan C” etc etc… ), I have a hypothesis that this is something that founders become very good at, whether natural trait or not. But this expertise does open the door to a few challenges, because our brains aren’t actually set up to have more than one ‘thought’ at once – so what it’s actually doing is jumping between thoughts. In the first instance, this leaves the thinking part of the brain getting tired and overwhelmed, which then leaves it exposed to anxiety and catastrophising, as the emotional parts of the brain kick in from the overwhelm.

To counteract this, grab hold of the issue and start writing down the options – a good old spider diagram can serve you well, or simply listing the different scenarios. Again the visual nature of this (like writing down the emotions) has a cathartic affect on the brain – there is relief that it no longer has to ‘hold’ all these thoughts, and by working through the scenarios, and analysing the options, the worries and emotions wrapped up in them can be processed too. If you’re facing a tough situation (like running out of runway, for example) it helps to identify what the ‘bad scenario’ plan actually is too. In those cases, we all know this isn’t going to be a plan you like, or without pain, but by outlining what the plan is your thinking brain can stop whirring, secure in the knowledge that there is a plan. And most importantly, when you emotional brain pipes up again later, worrying about “what will happen if…” you can halt that catastrophising thinking with a calming “don’t worry, we’ve got the plan” way of thinking.

At the end of the day, we’re all human – emotion-regulation (or ‘Self-Control’ when it comes to emotional intelligence competencies) is a core skill for leading yourself and others effectively. But be compassionate with yourself – the internal conflicts surfaced here are much more prevalent and emotionally charged for founders than those in employment. Some days we’ll crack it, some days, not so much. The key is to just keep working at it.

This is all part of a series of articles on keeping it together during tough times:

How to survive downsizing as a founder

How to drive a sense of URGENCY in your team

Keeping your motivation topped up as a founder


Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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