“Oh no! I did it again!” That’s often the sentiment expressed when we realize we took quick action without thinking it through. This regret could be about any number of things, such as:
interrupting and talking over someone (again!)
making an erratic decision without enough information
completely losing composure during a difficult conversation.
In working with highly motivated leaders, I see people who are deeply invested in getting results and taking action. However, too much of a “bias for action” can lead to a fair amount of clean-up work later. In fact, low impulse control has strong potential to derail an otherwise successful career.
Leaders are only human. Sometimes stress takes a toll on good intentions to be cool, calm, and collected. The good news is impulse control is a muscle every leader can develop. For some people, impulse control comes easily, but for many others, it is an area in serious need of strengthening.
Here are a few questions to consider when assessing your current level of impulse control:
Do you frequently talk over people or interrupt?
Do you often run late to meetings?
Do you sometimes regret decisions that you’ve made?
Do you tend to take a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach to problems?
Is it easy to spot when you are frustrated?
Would people describe you as overly spontaneous?
Do you tend to indulge in too much of a good thing (e.g., alcohol, food, possessions)?
To strengthen your impulse control, start by considering these three areas. Notice each one builds in a small, but powerful pause!
KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS
Like all improvement efforts, start with you! This is worth some reflection because being more mindful of your triggers allows you to create strategies to put the brakes on strong emotions and force yourself to slow down. Identify the situations that test your patience and trigger a high-energy or intense emotional response. Once you realize which situations get a strong and immediate reaction from you, it’s time to pay attention to how these reactions feel. Keep an eye out for physical sensations such as:
Increased heart rate
Sudden changes in your mood
One CEO with whom I worked was famous for shooting off angry retorts via email when he felt his people were not “working smart” or taking enough accountability. The consequence of these emails? Decreased productivity among employees. Once he realized he was paralyzing his staff, he decided to work on his email practices. He started paying attention when his heart rate shot up and he felt the urge to respond. He caught himself pressing his keyboard with extra force (aka “angry typing”). He noticed how tightly he clenched his jaw. Being aware of these cues was the critical first step in getting ahead of his impulsive reactions.
DIAL DOWN YOUR INTENSITY
Once you are more aware of your triggers, you can begin to turn down your intensity, slow down, and process the situation. Passion that drives quick action can unintentionally make employees feel pressured, intimidated, or overpowered. Nowhere is this more dangerous than when a leader needs to make critical decisions that could have far reaching consequences. Being too reactive can lead to rash decisions and haphazard changes without consideration of long-term implications.
Once again, the pause can be an incredible tool. Finding a way to breathe, step back, and slow down allows time to analyze a situation before reacting.
If you tend to operate in the fast lane, find a way to remind yourself to pause. Ask, “What will happen if I don’t take action right now?” How can you create “speed bumps” for yourself, slow down and allow for more time (even just 1 minute) before taking action? A few suggestions:
Take three deep breaths
Count backwards from 10 to 1
Visualize a good outcome to the situation
Ask yourself what you really want in the situation
Everything cannot be urgent. Let’s return to the story of the CEO. With this new self-awareness, the CEO implemented a rule for himself. Whenever he found himself “triggered,” he deliberately waited 24 hours before hitting send on an email response. The resulting change in his team’s engagement was remarkable. Fear subsided. People felt more empowered to take action without analysis paralysis.
PRACTICE EXCELLENT LISTENING
It is important to remain open to new ideas by taking others in and listening to their perspectives. This isn’t possible if your lack of impulse control causes you to interrupt and talk over people. It may feel incredibly hard but it is imperative to let people finish their thoughts before taking your turn to talk. How can you catch yourself? Building active listening skills will help you to wait, concentrate on what others are saying, and play it back for them before jumping in with your thoughts.
Asking good questions is the key to listening. A great way to start is as simple as asking, “Tell me more…” Silence is your friend. Use it to give people time to think and concentrate on understanding what is being said instead of formulating your response.
Strong leaders listen with intention because no one wants to be talked over or feel disregarded in communication. This one skill could be the bridge to improving your impulse control. If possible, ask someone you trust to help you by letting them know you are working on listening better. Ask for feedback on how often you interrupted or appeared to be distracted or not actually listening. But don’t stop there! Once you get feedback, remember to act on it and make the necessary changes!
Working to better manage the temptation to immediately do something or say something can seem daunting. Small steps, practiced over time, can lead to big results. Not just for you as a leader, but for your team. The habit of pausing will make sure that you’re being smart with your decisions and not just quick!
Building your impulse control will make you a more emotionally intelligent and effective leader.