Last week, I shared some of what I’m hearing from teams who are reaching the boiling point during the Covid crisis. Actually, part of the reason that we’re starting to see so many team issues is that we’re past the acute crisis phase. In North America, we’re into our third month and the stiff upper lips are quivering. Our teams are starting to suffer.
I asked you to send me your observations so that I can share some tools, tips, or tricks to help you manage. The first response I got came on Twitter, where Tim McClure told me that he’s finding leaders struggling to manage the fears and emotions of their teams. Making a constructive space for emotions is one of the most important topics for a happy, healthy, and productive team regardless of whether you’re leading through a global pandemic or not. I’m glad to spend some time on it here.
Take Emotions as a Given
Emotions aren’t optional. They aren’t unprofessional. If you were told otherwise, it’s time to update your operating system.
Emotions are Useful
Not only are emotions unavoidable, they can be extremely useful. I’ve talked about this before: displays of emotion are clues or symptoms of an underlying problem. An outburst of emotion is much like a jolt of pain—a helpful indication that something is being injured and it’s time to pause and get to the bottom of the issue before more harm is done.
Different Faces of Emotion
One of the challenges of managing emotions is that they can manifest in so many different ways. A quiet, quivering voice and the absence of eye contact might alert you to sadness. A frenetic speech pattern and a barrage of questions might suggest anxiety. A hair trigger and the propensity to interrupt aggressively might tip you off to anger. Those are the obvious ones. You’re able to spot those from a mile away.
Emotion doesn’t always show itself in such clear-cut ways, nor does it always link directly back to the root cause. If we return to the pain metaphor, I’m reminded of my friend in graduate school who suffered with chronic back pain. Several unproductive months into working with a chiropractor, it turned out she had an intestinal ulcer. Pain is helpful as a symptom, but sometimes you have to do some sleuthing before you can make the link between symptom and diagnosis.
The same is true on your team.
You might be seeing fear or emotion showing up in all manner of strange and unhelpful behavior. What looks to you like someone being a bully and a control freak might be a person who fears failure or is terrified of becoming redundant. It’s a sad irony that their territorial behavior is making them more vulnerable rather than less. Your ability to recognize that the bad behavior is self-protective rather than malicious might be the person’s only hope of finding a more constructive outlet for their concerns before they alienate their teammates.
That’s just one random example. There are infinite possibilities for behavior you might be seeing (or not seeing) that are signs and symptoms of underlying fear.
Procrastinating can have deep emotional roots. So too can taking on too much.
Sarcasm is unhealthy aggression toward others, whereas self-deprecating comments are self-inflicted wounds (sometimes offered in hopes that you will rush to the person’s defense).
Obstinance, bullying, dismissiveness, resignation, or persistence, could each be a sign that something is not right.
In the Open
At first sign that one of your team members is feeling frightened, or anxious, or frustrated, or trapped, make space to get those emotions in the open. Tread lightly so the person senses your openness without feeling compelled to talk if they’re not ready. To broach the conversation, you might start or close a team meeting with a statement about resilience. You could try,
“I’ve been reading a lot about the impact of all these changes on our resilience and productivity. Let’s make sure we take care of ourselves and each other.”
You could follow up in a one-on-one conversation with,
“As I mentioned on the call the other day, I’m thinking about how we make this sustainable. How is this playing out for you? What are the biggest challenges? What could I do to help?”
You can also signal your openness by sharing your own emotional experience of the situation, such as,
“I don’t know what is going on with me, but I really got my knickers in a knot reading that report. I’m making assumptions and jumping to conclusions more than I should be.”
When you see behavior that you think might be masking fear or other emotions, ask about it.
“I’m surprised to hear you say that about Deb. Fill me in on what’s going on there.”
In general, use a light touch when it comes to hearing about someone’s emotional response. Welcome it. Don’t force it.
Empathy and Validation
When one of your team members does share how they’re feeling, be empathetic and make space for their experience of the situation to come out. Contrary to popular belief, acknowledging their emotion is unlikely to make it bigger, or more intense, or more dramatic. Acknowledging it will help the person name the feelings and figure out what to do about them.
Validation doesn’t mean you have to agree or sympathize with how they feel, only that you need to make the person feel heard and understood. You can validate someone by paraphrasing what they said, such as…
“For you, my decision to go ahead with the meeting when you weren’t available made you feel like I don’t value your contribution.”
You can also validate someone by acknowledging their comments and then asking a question to better understand their perspective, such as…
“Today’s meeting isn’t sitting well with you. How did you hope the presentation would play out?”
And if the person’s emotion is overflowing, as in a situation where someone is yelling, or crying, or frenetic with worry, simply make space for it by saying, “This is important. What do I need to understand?”
It’s amazing how making room for someone’s fear and emotions, giving them a chance to speak their fears aloud, can suddenly make those emotions less overwhelming. Then, when you get an indication that the person is ready, you can gently lead them toward action.
“I’m so glad you shared the impact this is having. What’s one thing you think we could do differently that would help?”
“How are you going to raise this issue with Tricia?”
“Let’s talk about your priorities for the remainder of the week. What are you going to put at the top of your list?”
Notice that each of these statements puts the action plan back in the other person’s hands. That’s a good way of shifting them into problem solving mode, which will help them move beyond the feelings they were stuck in. It’s also a good way to signal that you still have confidence in the person. You’re leaving them with some autonomy and accountability, rather than stepping in and dictating next steps.
If this doesn’t work, you can certainly trial a solution to help the person get unstuck. Something like…
“Why don’t you take some time to think about how the team could help. In the meantime, would it make sense for me to reassign one of the accounts to Bob?”
Managing emotions has always been a part of good leadership and it always will be. During a global pandemic, those emotions are closer to the surface, more urgent, and more overwhelming. Take a deep breath and wade in. You got this.