How to Handle Negative Thoughts and Emotions at Work

There is a reason that you’re a leader and not just a manager: your ability to adapt and evolve. Talent is talent, but leadership requires emotional intelligence on top of it, an appreciation of politics, team dynamics – of people.

But while your team may value you for your apparent cool head, all that outward management can leave a dangerous inward void. Work too hard, care too much about your team, and it’s easy to neglect your own needs and find yourself with a one-way ticket to burnout.

In particular, while your success should be testament enough to the great job you’re doing, if you only answer to yourself then it can be easy to become too hard on yourself. When things aren’t going well in the office, you have distractions from home, or you’re going through a rough patch, you may find your inner voice treating you in a way you would never speak to your employees: issuing discouragement, blame, and forecasts of doom just when positivity is needed the most.

This is when it’s time to tune up that emotional agility of yours. Negative thinking is a pretty prevalent issue, which means that we know the kinds of pattern into which professionals tend to fall.

For example, you may find yourself polarizing your results so that anything that’s not an unqualified success is automatically deemed a failure. This is called black and white thinking, and it’s not the kind of complex judgment call that you can expect from yourself when you’re at your best.

But you’ll like the three-pronged solution that Susan David, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has figured out. It can be summed up in just a few words:

  • Show up
  • Step out
  • Move on.

In other words: face up to your fears, survey them objectively, and then leave them behind.

A useful tool for the ‘showing up’ part is to flag your negative thoughts. It’s all too easy to let your inner voice nag away at the back of your mind, or to push negative emotions down out of sight – only for them to return when least required. Emotional agility begins with acknowledging the problem and bringing it out into the light.

People don’t like to do this because they’re afraid of what they might find. But you didn’t reach your position by shying away from the difficult questions.

Identifying a thought makes it easier to deal with. Look inside, and if you see – for example – that you hate a particular project that you’re working on, flag it as an “unhelpful thought.” When it arises in future, it will be much easier to dismiss, rather than repress, making working on that project a less unpleasant prospect.

‘Stepping out’ can be achieved much as you might expect a sportsperson to ‘step out’ when tempers are getting out of hand in the field. Stepping out can stop you from lashing out or making a bad decision when your temper is frayed. But it’s not just about anger – it’s about all those negative emotions, from fear of failure to straightforward boredom.

Stepping out is easy. Just take a deep breath and count to ten. If you’re working by yourself, you might want to switch pace – by writing down your thoughts and plans instead of thinking them through, which can lead the mind in circles. Your emotions are valuable, but sometimes it is essential to disassociate your feelings from the job at hand.

‘Moving on’ can be the hardest step of all. In the end, we can never fully control our emotions, and our perceived failures and shortcomings tend to haunt us.

To move on may require different steps in different circumstances. In some cases, you might find yourself stuck in the middle of a task from which you can see no light. In that case, moving on can be as simple as putting that task aside for the day to return to tomorrow. Or it may mean going for a walk or bringing someone else in so that you can get past that block.

Some emotions trail us from project to project, quarter to quarter. In cop shows, it’s the detective who can’t get over that one case he never closed. For a CEO, it might be a client you lost, an opportunity you missed, or a bad experience in your workplace. If you’ve done everything you can, and there’s nothing left to ‘show up’ to or ‘step out’ from, you can move on by learning to value your emotions and experiences, your failures and missed opportunities, as lessons.

Some other guy can define himself by his failures. You can recognize yourself as a work in progress, and use your experience and your intuition to work on being the kind of leader that people look up to.

For more ideas on how to process those feelings and come out stronger, check out this visual guide to managing negative emotions.


Written by: G. John Cole – John writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specialising in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.

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