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FROM THE VAULT: 7 Ideas for Leading During Emotionally-Charged Times

Last week, I was going to start the first of a two-part series about some interesting science on both showing appreciation and giving helpful feedback. It didn’t happen last week, and spoiler alert, it’s not happening this week.

At times last week, I could hardly muster up a thought that felt helpful, additive, or meaningful. So I took the week off from work. 

Following the Uvadale shooting, like all of you, I was exhausted from the emotional rollercoasters. From emptiness to rage, to sadness, to motivation to do something, I didn’t know which feeling to hang onto, so I just rode with them all. 

So instead of sticking to the plan, I thought providing some help to managers leading teams through this moment in time may be more helpful.

While being alive is plenty hard right now, managing a team full of humans feels exceptionally challenging. From balancing workloads and combating your team’s burnout to recruiting and onboarding new team members and keeping track of who is doing what, middle managers are shouldering a lot.

When you’re both trying to manage up and down, executing your leadership’s priorities while balancing your team’s wellbeing, it is easy to see why middle managers are carrying an endlessly growing weight. And many feel like they have to keep it together for both audiences. 

If it feels like it’s all you can to put one foot in front of the other, hopefully, something in this week’s edition will help you.

1. Stop pretending

If you’re having a tough time, acknowledge it. It’s easy to think you’re doing a good job hiding it, but people know when something is not right. It’s the pretending that weakens your team and makes the dynamic feel off-kilter.

2. Confront your stress response

I can quickly turn into that person who sends an IM, email, and text message within 10 minutes of each other…OR give very unclear directions…OR micromanage to try to control SOMETHING. 

When I’m stressed, my perfectionist tendencies and my desire for control take over. For me, it’s critical to identify what constitutes “good enough” and leave it at that. What happens when you’re stressed? How might that affect your team?

3. Cultivate openness, not offloading

For those of us for whom #1 is NOT a problem, sometimes #3 can be. It’s easy to think that people will find safety or trust in our vulnerability. But in other times, being overly vulnerable can also become destabilizing. In Big Feelings, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy talk about a formula to pair vulnerability with a path forward

Here is an example of something I would say to my team as I come back from vacation: “I know it’s a hard time for many of us right now, and I am feeling the weight of the last week and the seemingly endless hard news. If you ever want to talk, my door is open. Here are some steps I’d like to take to ensure we balance our collective health with the progress we can continue to make as a team. I need your help to ensure you flag when any of these steps do not seem doable.”

4. Read the room

If you are running a meeting with your team and there is no energy left in the room, or if you notice that people seem more on edge or upset than usual, acknowledge it. You have a choice to recognize the situation and get back to the agenda, or if it’s not so important, acknowledge the situation and give people their time back. You could say something like, “I can see in many of your faces that you’re carrying a lot. So much is going on in the world so let’s put the agenda on hold. If there is anything I can do to offer you support, whether that is moving deadlines or helping you find additional health resources, let me know.”

5. Check in individually, especially with those that seem fine

Make it a priority to do a check-in with each person on your team. It may seem important to focus on the ones who are struggling or newer team members, but sometimes your top performers who seem OK are quickly spiraling out of control

 because they won’t ask for help. 

Set reminders to check in on people with direct ties to events should you find yourself in that situation. If you do have 1:1s with your team members, here are some questions you can ask:

What is one thing I can do to better support you?

What kind of resources or flexibility do you need right now?

What is on your plate that is keeping you up at night?

6. Show appreciation

Recognition is performance-based; appreciation acknowledges the person’s inherent value. They are both important, but we all want to be understood, especially during tough times. When you’re checking in with people, show appreciation specifically for something they bring to the table.

7. Do what you say

So many of us nail 1-6. We say the right things, but then turn around and undermine it all by doing the opposite. We say to turn it off and take a vacation, yet we respond to emails on our vacation. We say prioritize time with your family, yet we send a text that we forgot about after hours. We say to take a sick day if you’re sick, yet we work through a covid diagnosis. These actions are detrimental to your team’s health. You are essentially negating all of what you say is important. If you won’t take time off for yourself, do it to show your team it’s OK. It’s a privilege.

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