C-Suite Network™

The #1 Responsibility Leaders Avoid

By Marcia Reynolds, PsyD

“The most important need for leaders today…” my ears perked up. The speaker, a well-known tech leader and best-selling author, had presented some facts showing the abysmal state of employee engagement. I was hoping for a brilliant insight when he said the most important need for leaders, “…is to hold meaningful one-on-one conversations with their employees.” Wasn’t this the message I was asked to deliver over 30 years ago when I taught my first management training class? Leaders avoid their best method for improving engagement.

It makes sense that leaders avoid one-on-one conversations because humans are unpredictable and messy. Humans are emotional by nature. Everything seen, heard, felt, touched, and smelled is processed through two emotional centers of the brain before the logical center is engaged. There’s no guarantee how any conversation will turn out, so leaders avoid what could turn out badly.

Emotions aren’t bad; they are reactions to stimuli. They reflect energy moving through the body. Acknowledging emotions in a conversation can lead to discovering important information needed to breakthrough blocks, make good decisions, and take a positive step forward.

Even if people trust you to be honest with them, they need to know it’s okay to be themselves no matter what they are experiencing, without worrying about being negatively judged. What leaders avoid – emotional expression – is their best chance to connect.

Leaders Avoid, Fix, and Tolerate — the normal, wrong choices

If you weren’t raised to talk about emotions, you probably don’t know how to respond to them when they show up. You might tense up, check out, give an unsolicited suggestion, or impatiently wait for the person to get over it and move on.

Most leaders rationalize their avoidance by saying things like, “If I encourage people to talk about their feelings, I will say things I wouldn’t normally say.” Or, “I don’t have time for their dramas.” The business world is full of aphorisms that declare, “Only the tough survive.”

Being uncomfortable with expressions of emotions doesn’t make you bad. Your discomfort is an indication that you haven’t had enough training to develop your skills. When you learn how to use the power of sensory awareness—to feel deeply and empathize with others—you are more capable of making a difference.

Understanding how emotions affect decisions and behavior makes you wise. Creating a safe space to talk about emotions makes you strong. Leaders who develop the skills of emotional intelligence can have meaningful conversations that increase engagement, innovation, and results.

Appreciation opens the door to transformation

I know this is easier said than done. Staying alert to what you are feeling or receiving from others can be scary and even painful. Here are 6 tips for what to do when emotions arise during difficult conversations:

  1. Take a breath, release your tension, and be quiet. Give people a moment to recoup so they don’t feel badly for reacting.
  2. Allow the reaction to happen. They might apologize or give excuses. Tell them you understand why they are reacting so they feel normal instead of inadequate.
  3. Don’t try to “fix” the person or make suggestions unless they beg you. Even then, if the person is smart and resourceful, it is better to ask questions to learn more about their situation. This will help them think things through more rationally.
  4. If they get defensive, don’t fuel the fire. Don’t get angry in return or disengage. Whether they are mad at you or others, give them a moment to vent to release the steam.
  5. If they are afraid, ask what consequences they fear and listen to their answer. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel afraid. Encourage them to speak by asking a few questions that show you are curious and you care. What are they afraid they will lose, based on the situation? What else could happen? What can you do to support them through the change? Listen with curiosity, care, and compassion. The conversation will help them discern assumptions from reality where they might see a possible way forward.
  6. Before you end the conversation, ask them to articulate what they discovered or learned.Articulating insights helps people feel stronger. Identifying what they are learning gives them a sense of control. If the emotions don’t subside, you might ask for another meeting when the person can more comfortably look at solutions with you.

People are emotional. If you judge or avoid their reactions, you are judging or avoiding them as humans. That never feels good. Being a leader means you can sort things out together no matter what they feel. See the person in front of you as doing his or her best with what he knows now. From this perspective, you might an amazing conversation that could surprise the both of you.

You can find more tips on holding productive uncomfortable conversations in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.

Marcia Reynolds
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