Back with another great question from an audience member at a keynote. The specific question was, “How do I talk my high performers off the ledge?”

On the Ledge

[I know the questioner meant this as a metaphor. This particular metaphor provides an important opportunity to say that people in psychological crisis might need your help. I am not a clinical psychologist and none of my advice is suitable for people who are contemplating suicide. If anyone you’re working with seems distressed or unable to cope with their present situation, flag the situation to HR. If available, immediately provide the person with links to Employee Assistance Program resources. If your organization doesn’t have an EAP, there are useful resources here and here.]

The Metaphorical Ledge

Now, let’s go back to this as a proverbial “ledge.” I didn’t have the opportunity to ask for more context, but I suspect that the questioner was feeling taken aback that stress levels are now rising even among the most competent and resilient employees. “On the ledge” might mean you have people who are considering quitting their job, thinking of going off on stress leave, or contemplating giving up on their commitments and deliverables. The idea is that you’re talking to the person at a crucial juncture, where what you say and do might affect the decision they make. You are in a position to make a difference.

What Not to Do

Let’s start with what not to do. (Because we usually start by doing these things!)

You might be tempted to contradict the person’s feelings—often because they seem utterly ridiculous to you. If someone you know to be a high performer and a valued member of the team starts talking about being “no good” or not “pulling their weight,” it’s natural that you would want to reassure them by saying, “Are you kidding me?!? You’re fantastic!” or “Everyone loves you.”

Although your enthusiastic or optimistic statements might be 100% true, they are dismissive, invalidating, and unlikely to make any real difference.

[Pause. Re-read.]

It is possible to say something positive and flattering about a person that is dismissive and invalidating.  (Click to Tweet this.)

I’ve said it many times, facts are so much less important than you think. It’s less important (to the person) whether or not they are letting people down than if they feel like they are letting people down. While contradicting their facts might feel like you’ve won the battle, you’ve completely missed the point that the battle is on a different field.

Invalidating a person’s concerns could make them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable that they expressed any vulnerability to you in the first place. Don’t be surprised if you get shut out as they move on to a more receptive audience for their doubts and concerns. Although you might be relieved to avoid these emotional, high-stakes conversations, given that ignorance is bliss, when you’re a manager, ignorance is a short-lived bliss. You’re likely to find the person takes their concerns to their colleagues and the emotional contagion spreads on your team.

Go Out on the Ledge

Instead of standing your ground and talking about the situation from your perspective, go stand with them on the ledge. If they are saying, “I’m going to quit, I can’t take this anymore,” start by validating them and letting them know that you heard what they said, and you take it seriously. “You feel like you want to quit. That’s serious” or “You feel like you can’t take it anymore. I’m glad you shared that with me.”

Then, ask if the person is willing to talk with you about it, “Would it be ok if we talked about it?” “Could I ask you a few questions and see if I can help?” Follow their lead here. If the answer is yes, proceed. If they say no, or hesitate, don’t push. You might say, “Your experience is important to me. If and when you’re comfortable, I’d like to learn more.”

Ask some gentle questions to find out what’s precipitating this crisis moment. “What’s going on for you?” or “Tell me where you’re at,” or “What is feeling overwhelming?” Only use that last one if they have offered the word “overwhelming.” Otherwise, stick to generic questions that don’t include subjectivity or judgment.

As you listen, start to piece together what’s going on. What are the facts (there might be a few)? What are the emotions? Zeroing in on the specific emotion the person is experiencing can be really helpful. If you’re someone who is about as good at telling the difference between angry and hostile as between puce and chartreuse, you can check out this awesome emotion wheel.  

Say what you see (or sense), “I’m getting the sense that you’re not just tired, you’re angry.” Be aware that you might not get it right the first time, but that’s ok, try again. Most people are relieved that someone is willing to listen and to help them sort out the muddy thoughts in their heads. If it’s more frustration than anger, they’ll tell you.

Once you’re clear on the emotions, gauge what you’re learning about the person’s values and how those values are being challenged by the situation. Are they highly conscientious and afraid they’re letting people down? Are they driven by the cause your organization is serving and feeling like their contribution isn’t making a big enough difference?

Once you help the person name what they’re feeling and connect their emotions to underlying values, you might help them reframe how they are thinking about something, “I understand how you think that presentation didn’t go well. What I noticed was how much valuable feedback you got and how engaged everyone was in the discussion. What did you take away from their comments that you can use?”

You might also coach them by asking a question that generates forward-thinking. How might you prepare differently next time? What do you need to send out to the participants as a follow-up? How can I help?

Now you’ve earned the right to share your perception. “I’m glad you shared with me how you felt after the presentation. I get it, now. That said, I want you to know that I have great confidence in you and think you’re an indispensable member of the team. You can come to me with your concerns any time.”

If someone you manage is “on the ledge,” go stand there with them for a bit. Check out the view. Be an ally. Then you’ve earned the right to help them create a plan that makes them want to climb back inside and carry on.

Further Reading

Does a Manager Have to Be a Therapist These Days?

Want High Performance? Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Everybody Hurts