My strategy development mandates often evovle to leadership and communications coaching. Ultimately even the best strategies are undermined when people don’t raise the bar on those skills. When a team member is distressed, they can’t perform, and will certainly struggle in carrying out any work, never mind strategic work. Which brings me to this post, which I am writing as we are about four months into the pandemic.
Many leaders are unsure how to handle difficult conversations, especially when there is any mention of burnout or emotional distress by one of their employees. These can be uncomfortable and many leaders shy away from this type of difficult conversation. Some leaders may even say that this type of discussion is outside their purview. The pandemic has increased stress levels across the board, as people juggle work and family life, caring for other family members and learning new ways of working virtually. Enough has been written about this, so I will focus on my point: leaders addressing employee distress in a supportive way.
Four months into the pandemic, I was wrapping up an ecosystem strategy mandate. There were almost 50 other participants from across North America, and the workshops were all carried out virtually. The sponsor was a recognized leader in the organization without authority on these participants; they came together willingly to work towards a common strategy. During one of the workshops, several people indicated feeling “burnt out,” “overwhelmed,” “unable to cope.”
In a private 1:1 conversation with the leader who was sponsoring the ecosystem strategy, I urged her to reach out privately to each of those participants to offer support in any way she could. Otherwise, I assured her that two things would happen: (1) the strategy we had all gotten together to develop would go nowhere; and (2) the participants trust in her as a leader was likely to erode, and, most importantly, (3) the participants’ sense of isolation was likely to increase, thus increasing their suffering.
Considering her personal values and those of the organization she worked for, she could not turn a blind eye to what had been shared. Like many leaders, she did not realise either of these points, nor did she realize that outreach could create energy for those suffering. She also hadn’t realised that, by virtue of her position, she had access to more resources than any one of the individuals that had opened themselves up in that workshop. So, after an extensive conversation about why it was so important for her to reach out to the individuals personally, here is the script I sent her.
Hi, Jane (not her real name),
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about what emerged from our workshop. As you can tell from our discussion, I feel very passionately about the responsibility we leaders have when someone allows themselves to be vulnerable by sharing their distress, especially publicly. Here is a simple script I suggest, should you choose to reach out to offer support to those who indicated they are suffering in the current context.
You: I heard you say you were burnt out when we spoke. (That’s it. Then you pause).
The person will either (1) shut down – trying to deal with their emotions, which include gratitude at having someone care enough to open the door to discussion. OR (2) they will speak at length about why, what’s going on with their lives. OR (3) they will tell you to mind your own business. OR (4) they will say they’re ok.
1) They shut down: just be present, for as long as it takes. Ask, “do you want to talk about it?” If they start talking, just listen. If they don’t, let them know you are there to lend an ear. If they seem isolated, offer to help them get help. “Would you like me to help you connect with others who have faced a similar situation?” or “There is support at (company xyz), do you want me to help you get help?” This is extremely important; the isolation and feelings of shame associated with “not being able to handle it” prevent many from getting help – especially for people who don’t know the ropes, or are not connected to any community. You could also say, “I just want you to know you are not alone.” Please resist the urge to ask, “How can I help?” which adds burden.
2) They open up and talk about it. Just listen. Again, make sure they are not isolated. Many people will mention the help they are getting or the support they have. In which case you can say “I’m glad to know you’re well supported. Know that I am here to listen if you need an additional set of ears, and I can help with xyz. Again, if they seem isolated in their struggles, offer to help them get connected to help.
(3) Some people laugh it off and say it is a manner of speaking, but in my many years doing this, only a handful of cases have fallen into this category.
(4) In all my years, only one person has told me to mind my own business. I told him I was here if ever he changed his mind and just wanted to bend an ear. He was a leader in his community who was soon after hospitalized for mental health issues. We have spoken since and he told me of the burden of shame he felt in asking for help, and the judgement he felt from his community, and that my asking and being there even after he told me to get lost was so helpful.
Let me know if you would like to discuss further, Jane. I am certain your support of these individuals will make a positive difference and will be appreciated for years to come.
So that’s it. If you are an emerging leader and need some guidance with difficult conversations, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.