Stop crossing the boundary from caring to caretaker
We have made the shift from the days when we left emotions at the door and expected employees to do the same. With many employees working from home, holding the boundary of our personal from our business life has become more challenging to maintain. This has fostered the new habit of employees bringing personal or mental health issues to their boss with an expectation that the boss takes care of them. With the boundaries being increasingly blurred, leaders who are not emotionally self-aware or have limited interpersonal skills are struggling to navigate in these uncertain waters.
To deal with these new and often unrealistic expectations, leaders have become permissive, allowing employees to complain and even whine about how hard their work is instead of effectively boundarying their behavior and limiting the time they spend on personal stress and other issues. Because they have never been trained on how to deal with emotionally charged situations, leaders have become permissive, using one of the permissive leader’s strategies — playing rescuer, counselor, or therapist to employees.
While it’s important to demonstrate the appropriate empathy and caring for an employee who is struggling, and support them when there are real situations such as health and family crises, it doesn’t mean that a leader needs to jump in and rescue an employee when they find themselves overwhelmed by a to-do list or when they become distressed by a change in priorities. Following the oversharing of relationship issues or details of episodes of insomnia and anxiety brought on by non-work situations, instead of empathizing and then refocusing on the tasks to be done, leaders act as though they are qualified to counsel or give personal advice.
Leaders and managers have long been encouraged to tell employees they have an open-door policy and to come to them with their issues and concerns without qualifying with them that they mean are work issues and concerns. And with the increased uncertainty and stresses of the time, employees are taking them up on this and instead, bringing excessive emotional distress and complaints, much to the leader’s dismay and frustration.
Be their leader, not their therapist
So how does a leader or manager do this? Demonstrate genuine caring without fostering dependence on them? The first thing is to ask oneself is “Am I giving mixed messages”. For example, are you taking responsibility for employees’ emotions, thinking that you must come up with a solution or make them feel better? Do you encourage or enable an employee’s undeveloped emotional self-management by spending long periods of time listening to them rant or complain? Or, perhaps after a long session of hearing way too much information about their emotional life and challenges, you encourage them to come back any time. These are just a few ways a leader acts outside the scope of their role, moving past caring to caretaker.
While leaders know it’s not their job to try to provide psychological assistance or to offer stress reduction tips, they will do it anyway because it makes them feel like they are doing what they should to be an empathetic boss. But it is not a valuable use of their time as it prioritizes employee emotions over their work. Plus, they aren’t trained for that, and even if they were, some lines are worth keeping and reinforcing in the workplace. Because leaders do care about an employee’s well-being, the employee is better served by an honest response such as, “I know how challenging this last month has been for you and I can see how it has impacted your work, which is only making you feel worse. I think you would benefit from talking to someone who can help through our Employee Assistance Program. I’ll look at how we can distribute your work while you take some time.”
That said, the majority of situations employees bring to their boss will not require therapy or counseling. They just need a safe place to express their emotional experience of their work or get them back to a place of objectivity where they can see they have the power to resolve what is causing their issue. And while it’s important to empathize, leaders always have to be mindful of the need to direct the conversation to an exploration of the issues causing the emotions and not focus on their emotions.
With practice, leaders can empathize and direct employees in a way that supports them while protecting their time. Here’s an example of how:
“I’m glad you came to me with how you are feeling about the challenges you are having with your inconsistent childcare and your partner’s unwillingness to help. I see that it is causing you significant stress and impacting your ability to focus. It helps me to understand what’s contributed to you arriving late and your absenteeism. While I want to support you through this, I do have limitations in how much I can make myself available to support you. I really encourage you to take the time to resolve the issue by talking to friends and family members and getting professional help if needed. I know Human Resources is a great resource for connecting you to professionals should you decide to go that way. For sure, I will check in with you regularly to see how things are going.”
Important Skills to Avoid Becoming Permissive
Disengaging, or mentally and emotionally stepping back from your reaction to an employee’s emotions, is the first step in effectively responding to them. Disengaging gives you a chance to let your emotions settle and let your goodwill and intellect reassert themselves, so you can handle things from the position of your highest self. Whether the emotion is frustration, crying, or accusations of unfairness, staying objective by disengaging gets you off on the right foot.
You are not responsible for your employees’ emotions so resist the impulse to act from feeling you have to do something to make them feel better. Keep an open mindset to guide your choice of how to respond. Most important is to listen to fully understand them (their point of view, needs, and impact) and resist the impulse to be upset with them for the way you are reacting internally (i.e. How ridiculous. They’re making a big deal out of nothing. What do they expect me to do about this? Don’t make it about you.
To inquire means to gather information so you understand accurately what the employee’s issue actually is and what they might mean, believe, or feel. You want to get a sense of what the whole picture is, not just the emotional symptoms. When you inquire, you actively seek to understand the causal factors that are contributing so that you can direct the person appropriately or provide a brief sounding board for them to unstress. Resist the impulse to think you know what the issue is by giving them a solution to get them to stop emoting.
Empathy is a way of demonstrating that we accept the feelings of others while validating their right to feel that way. Remember that empathy does not have judgment attached to it nor does it indicate you agree with them. It’s not about deciding if someone is right or wrong in the way they experience a situation or the way they feel. When anyone is hijacked by their emotions or is experiencing situational distress and feels overwhelmed, all they sometimes need to feel is listened to and understood.
Sharing personal information with an employee builds trust and humanizes the interaction. Saying, “I struggle at times to keep everything together.” helps employees with feelings of embarrassment about their perceived loss of control. This type of supportive language indicates you understand while not inviting further disclosure. At the same time, it helps you resist the impulse to problem solve or rescue them from their emotions.
A Final Thought…
Demonstrating care and concern for employees is not measured by the amount of time you spend listening to them. Staying connected with employees who are struggling can be done with a couple of minute check-in which is a small investment with large benefits. But one of the most common mistakes leaders and managers make is to have a conversation with an employee, direct them to talk to someone else, and consider the matter closed. Make sure to follow up with your employee, as through this type of support, demonstrating ongoing interest in the resolution of their issue strengthens your bond with them, fosters trust, and employee engagement.
Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations. They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.
As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.
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