Keys to Great Emotional Leadership

The pandemic clarified just how much of our personal lives we bring to the workplace. Managers can help—if they rethink their leadership instincts.

Leaders don’t necessarily take on their jobs expecting to be emotional managers. Which may be why there’s so much evidence it’s not working out so well. According to one survey, 75 percent of stressed-out workers attribute their stress to their immediate supervisor

Happiness at the office, as I wrote last week, can be a difficult goal to achieve. It’s worth adding, though, that happiness isn’t the only emotion you may be called on to address. And given the various types of emotional strain that workers have faced in the past year, leaders have an increasing responsibility to better understand and manage them.

And too often, according to executive coach Sarah Noll Wilson, leaders fall short. In a Harvard Business Review article titled “How Supportive Leaders Approach Emotional Conversations,” she catalogs the many ways that leaders try to avoid talking about stress. They can dismiss or minimize problems or slather a stressful situation in what she calls “toxic positivity,” chirping platitudes like “Just look on the bright side!”—a phrase that, in my experience, is guaranteed to do little besides make a person fume quietly and feel unheard.

Too many employees are left wondering how valuable they really are to the organization.

Adrian Gostick

Fielding tough emotions can prompt a reflex in leaders to say that such things aren’t in their job description. But as Wilson points out, there are a lot of good reasons why addressing them makes good management sense, on top of simple compassion. Such moments, she writes, are “opportunities for growth.”

And as consultant Adrian Gostick recently wrote in Forbes, stressed-out workers who feel unheard are more likely to lose faith in an organization. “Too many employees are left wondering how valuable they really are to the organization,” he writes. “They wonder if their employers will be there for them if things get tough, i.e., if they face a family crisis or a physical or mental health challenge, will their leader and company stick with them?”

The good news is that there are things that organizations can do to get ahead of such challenges and perhaps avoid the need for uncomfortable conversations. They can, as Gostick points out, provide reminders of what support options are available. They can also make meaningful changes: In January, my colleague Rasheeda Childress spotlighted how, in the face of increasing stress levels during the pandemic, employers have instituted compressed work weeks, flexible schedules, and mental health employee resource groups

Beyond that, leaders can proactively connect with their employees to project openness and support. Much of Wilson’s article is focused on steps leaders can take on that front—validating the employee’s experience, asking questions, and not presuming you have the answer. “Assuming you know what’s best can minimize the other person’s needs, centers the conversation on you, and can leave them feeling unsupported,” she writes.

Reading that, it struck me that perhaps the reason emotional conversations can be so hard for leaders, even the best ones, is that good leaders are adept at fixing problems—identifying solutions and assigning responsibility for taking care of them. Emotional issues are more complex, and a stressed-out worker isn’t necessarily looking for a fix. They want, as Wilson points out, to have their concerns validated, to feel heard, and to know what their options are.

That may not in itself solve the issues that an employee is facing. But it can encourage them to see that your workplace is a safe and healthy place to be.

(eggeeggjiew/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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