Emotional self-leadership: Learning how to whistle while you work

The catchy Snow White tune with its hypnotic whistles has been engrained into many young minds over the decades. But, somehow, the message — we can find pleasure while working (or we can find stress) — hasn’t made its way into discussions of organizational management.

The catchy Snow White tune with its hypnotic whistles has been engrained into many young minds over the decades. But, somehow, the message — we can find pleasure while working (or we can find stress) — hasn’t made its way into discussions of organizational management.

The problem, says Associate Professor of Management Christopher Neck, is that organizational success is often related to a company’s strategy, culture, and leadership. Emotions are rarely given much attention. And if they are, studies generally focus on negative emotions, especially the impact of anger, anxiety, and stress on performance and job satisfaction.

But what about positive emotions like happiness, joy, and gratitude, asked Neck, along with professors Charles Manz of the University of Massachusetts, Jeff Houghton of West Virginia University, Mel Fugate of the University of South Australia, and Craig Pearce of Ozyegin University. They wondered: “What if individuals intentionally worked to control their emotions — especially positive ones — in the workplace? What outcomes would positive emotions have on productivity and personal well-being?”

Emotions are a choice

What are emotions, anyway? In Neck’s book, Self-Leadership, The Definitive Guide to Personal Excellence, co-authored with Manz and Houghton, feelings are described as both physical and mental: “Emotions might be thought of as reflections of ongoing thought activity in the body. Any given emotion involves not only feelings but also physical sensations, such as pain or discomfort felt in particular parts of the body as a result of negative thoughts, or pleasant sensations as a result of positive thoughts. Being able to choose what emotions we experience could have a profound impact on how we feel and thereby influence how we behave and perform.”

Emotions, it turns out, are complex reactions — not just “soft” and vague feelings. Neck points to another misnomer. “The myth is that we are angry, happy, or sad because of something that has happened to us,” he says. “Our research argues, however, that emotions are a choice.”

His group is studying ways to help others choose the emotional states that lead to positive versus negative outcomes in the workplace. Their research builds on the study of self-leadership, in which individuals learn to lead themselves to overcome obstacles toward their goals.

Learning to influence and control one’s emotions, they say, is a missing key to enhanced performance at work and fits hand-in-hand with self-leadership.

“Research supports that employees who lead themselves behaviorally, mentally, and emotionally persist longer, work harder, and are more satisfied with their jobs,” says Neck. “The assumption is that self-leadership will result in performance-related, long-term gains for organizations.”

But how do we purposefully manage emotions?

Strategy, strategy, strategy

Neck and his colleagues identified some emotional self-leadership strategies that are sure to have employees whistling while they work. They fall into five categories:


  • Environmental-focused strategies: Modify the environment and situations within it to achieve positive results. For instance, to make a task more emotionally enjoyable, consider adding stimuli: color, sound, or fragrance (paint the office a particular color, play classical music, or light candles with scents proven to reduce stress, such as vanilla).
  • Behavioral/action-focused strategies: Choose behaviors and actions that will likely elicit favorable emotional responses. If at odds with a co-worker over a work issue, search for shared agreement, such as “We both agree there is a problem,” versus “You’re wrong,” thereby fostering a potentially collaborative solution.
  • Natural reward-focused strategies: Celebrate achievements, which simultaneously elicit naturally positive emotions, i.e. Initiate a sharing session across departments to identify processes that are working well, rather than a session focused on problems in need of fixing.
  • Cognitive-focused strategies: Reverse negative self-talk and unhealthy beliefs through meditation and mental imagery, i.e. If a colleague shoves past you, instead of internally saying to yourself, “What’s his problem? He was so rude to me,” consider that it likely isn’t personal and he might have an emergency or might be under pressure to complete a task. Repositioning assumptions lessen aggravation and results in a more favorable emotional outcome.
  • Physiological-focused strategies: Practice proven techniques that impact the body both physically and chemically, while also improving mood. For example, eat diets rich in omega-3s; complete low-impact, moderate intensity exercises several times a week; get massages, quit smoking, or listen to music; practice deep-breathing exercises; and enroll in nontraditional exercise programs such as Pilates or tai chi.


While the majority of strategies in Neck’s research are most often applied before a potentially negative emotion arises, other techniques can be implemented as a response to an immediate situation. Some of those strategies include mentally counting to 10 to diffuse a situation or taking deep, relaxing breaths to calm down.

The many benefits of emotional self-leadership

Regulating emotions does more than just decrease workplace angst. It positively impacts everything from cardiovascular health to enhanced information processing and problem-solving skills and provides a heightened ability to cope with challenges.

Studies by Psychology Professor and Researcher Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill indicate that feelings such as joy, love, interest, contentment, and gratitude — those positive emotions — engage higher brain mechanisms and lead to enhanced memory. On the other hand, negative emotions like fear and anger tend to interfere with cognitive functioning. Just think back to an emotionally tense situation and how long it took to “clear your head.”

Muscling up for emotional training

In the same way that athletes must exercise certain muscle groups to ensure the highest level of performance and competition in their chosen sport, so must leaders undergo training to master emotional control.

Neck’s self-leadership book includes a series of self-guided exercises and questionnaires designed to improve emotional self-leadership skills. These include how to discover your negative self-talk patterns and transition them to positive self-talk; how to eliminate negative cues in the workplace and increase positive signals; how to develop a self-awareness of personal behaviors; and how to focus on pleasant versus unpleasant features of a task, among others. He and colleagues are also in the process of seeking an organization to pilot an emotional self-leadership training program.

Organizations, Neck believes, must teach employees these emotional self-leadership exercises and allow for practice. “Just as corporations spend money on training for computers, HR issues, diversity, and sexual harassment,” he says, “so should self-leadership and emotional self-leadership be part of the program.”

Because people manage their emotions in a highly personalized way, what works for one person to control or elicit an emotion may not be as effective for another. Classical music may calm or motivate some, while ’80s tunes might work for others. Organizations, he urges, must be in touch with their workforce before investing money on “blanket” emotional self-leadership solutions that may not speak to everyone.

So before installing a yoga studio, painting the walls a soothing pink, or piping Bach into the stereo surround, organizations should ask workers, “What do you want?” More importantly, Neck says, they should let employees know, “We buy into helping people lead themselves and self-lead their emotions. It’s OK to need help with managing your emotions. We’ll prepare you to do that.”

Offering massages, hanging inspirational posters, scheduling occasional guest speakers, and creating rooms designed to focus on creativity can be effective, says Neck, but emotional self-leadership has to be part of a systematic program of “We do care about you” within the organization.

The emotionally self-controlled workplace

Already, a body of research, including Neck’s, has proven that organizations whose employees practice emotional and behavioral self-leadership techniques experience reduced turnover, increased performance, and reduced stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, U.S. businesses lose more than $300 billion a year in the form of stress-related “absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs.”

It, therefore, behooves organizations to find ways for employees to self-manage emotions that negatively affect performance — stress, anger, fear, anxiety — and channel efforts toward positive feelings.

A better understanding of emotional self-leadership strategies could also assist employees facing contemporary psychological pressures in the workplace, according to Neck. In particular, he believes employees could practice mental strategies during company mergers and acquisitions, other reorganization efforts, or even changes in strategic priority — events that often trigger resistance, insecurity, and anxiety.

“When academics — and even businesspeople — hear the term self-leadership, they think it’s putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring what’s going on,” says Neck. “That’s not it at all. It is confronting your obstacles and challenges directly and learning to overcome them.”