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The Power of Positive Self-Talk When Leading in Uncertainty

The Power of Positive Self-Talk When Leading in Uncertainty

Whether you’re working remotely, working overtime, struggling to find work — or all of the above — the coronavirus pandemic and its economic aftermath have likely thrown your team into a state of crisis…which means, as a leader, your job just got a whole lot harder.

During difficult times, people look to their leaders for guidance on what to do and how to do it. Not only are you responsible for making the tough decisions, but all eyes are on you. You have a responsibility to be a good role model, including managing your own reactions.

But as a human, you’re subject to the same feelings of panic, anxiety, and stress as your team. (Learn more about why uncertainty is linked to anxiety.)

What can you do? It might sound trivial, but scientific evidence shows that how you talk to yourself can impact how you handle stress and how others see you.

How to Harness the Power of Positive Self-Talk

Whether you’re speaking out loud, in your head, or in a journal, follow these guidelines to leverage the power of positive self-talk when leading through the current crisis.

1. Stop thinking about “me, myself, and I.”

Studies conducted at the University of Michigan found that people who talk to themselves in “second person” (e.g., “You’re doing a great job”) or by using their own name (e.g., “Great job, Cathleen!”) instead of in “first-person” (e.g., “I’m doing a great job) fared better during stressful situations. Specifically, people who were randomly assigned to practice second-person self-talk:

  • Recovered quicker from social stressors;
  • Were evaluated by others as making better first impressions;
  • Performed better on a public speaking challenge; and
  • Saw daunting tasks as challenges rather than threats.

Our researchers found similar results. We looked at how leaders talk to themselves and found that leaders who used second-person self-talk were rated as “less likely to derail,” according to their peers. On the flip side, leaders who used “I” pronouns were given lower performance ratings by their bosses and higher perceptions of derailment likelihood by their peers.

Researchers believe that this pronoun trick works because it causes leaders to take a step back and see the big picture more objectively. It offers a nearly effortless way to regulate your emotions and harness self-control — especially important during times of crisis.

Help your leaders avoid burnout, and instead, burn bright with our online program, The Resilience Advantage, based on science-backed principles and an application-based approach.

2. Talk to yourself like you would to your closest friend.

Would you want to work for someone whose idea of a motivational speech included yelling obscenities? If your answer is no, don’t do it to yourself either.

In the study mentioned above, we found that leaders who swore at themselves in their letters were seen as less effective by others (even though other people never saw the letters!).

To understand the power of positive self-talk, another CCL study examined 2 types of self-talk in nearly 200 letters that senior executives wrote to themselves.

  • Constructive self-talk included comments that were thoughtful, substantive, motivational, insightful, and self-reflective.
  • Dysfunctional self-talk included comments that were hypercritical or over-focused on negative aspects of challenging situations.

Constructive self-talk turned out to be positively related to effective leadership and negatively related to job strain.

Dysfunctional self-talk? All it did was squelch creativity.

In short, your words matter, even if you’re the only one who hears (or reads) them. An easy trick: Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. Be honest, but don’t berate. Offer reassurance and motivation, and don’t drone on about all the things you did wrong.

The first step may be as simple as telling yourself: "You can do this."

3. Watch for distorted thought patterns.

We like to think our thoughts and feelings are objective reflections of reality, but it’s not that simple. Psychologists have long established that thoughts can get distorted, especially during times of stress. Common examples include:

  • Black and white thinking — the tendency to view a situation in either/or, all-or-nothing terms. (“If they cancel this project, nothing I’ve done here matters.”)
  • Catastrophizing — immediately jumping to the worst-case scenario. (“He says he has bad news; we’re all getting fired!”)
  • Overgeneralizing — taking an incident and generalizing too broadly. (“She never listens to my ideas.” or “He always rolls his eyes at me.”)

Some researchers believe these “cognitive distortions” may be a survival mechanism to help people cope with prolonged stress. After all, thinking about the worst-case scenario will probably help you in surviving the worst-case scenario.

However, these thought patterns can become habitual and lead to faulty decision making, stress, and anxiety. In fact, a recent CCL study found that leaders who reported more frequent cognitive distortions were more likely to experience burnout.

The good news is, once you’re aware of these distortions, you can learn to recognize them for what they are and not let them lead you astray.

Our study of leaders’ cognitive distortions found that using emotion regulation strategies, such as taking a step back from our thoughts — or considering other perspectives — seems to act as a buffer that prevents cognitive distortions from contributing to burnout. Learn more about cognitive distortions, and check out this list of strategies for dealing with uncertainty and anxiety that are likely to decrease them.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Building Resilience and Leadership in the Context of Crisis & Telework, and learn practical ways to enhance personal and team resilience and effectiveness during times of crisis.

4. Secure your own mask before assisting others.

When your team — and the world — is in crisis-mode, focusing on self-talk might feel selfish or inconsequential. However, remember the one type of crisis training most of us have had: the training on commercial airlines about what to do in the event of an emergency.

Know where the exits are. Remain calm. Be sure to secure your own mask before assisting others.

This advice is sound, because you can’t help others if you’re not in a good place. If you really want to do your best to lead your team through crisis, stay calm, understand what’s happening around you, and start with leading yourself.

The first step may be as simple as telling yourself: “You can do this.”

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your team foster peak performance by tapping into the power of positive self-talk with our online resilience program, The Resilience Advantage. The practical, scientific, and application-based approach will allow your leaders to avoid burnout, and instead, burn bright.


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December 7, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff to help you and your organization's leaders at every level. Want more content like this? Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-backed articles, webinars, insights, and news about leadership development solutions sent straight to your inbox.

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