Leadership and the Emotionally Battered Employee

leadership emotional emotionally battered employee

Sometimes we inherit them. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by other people within the organization. It may have been their manager, executive, or even the CEO. It may have been you. But there they are, sitting in front of you, obviously hurting, maybe even angry.

So what do you do? How do you handle it in that moment?

Well, the servant leadership perspective is going to be a little different from a traditional management approach in that a traditional management approach is likely going to be more geared toward figuring out the fastest and easiest way to get that employee back to functioning as quickly and efficiently as possible. Translation (from a traditional boss): How the heck can I get this emotional mess of an employee out of my office and back out there doing their job as soon as possible? Isn’t this what they should be paying a therapist for? 

Servant leadership, however, views employees as humans, and views humans holistically. Organizations are communities of humans, and as such, there are going to be times where healing is necessary. As leaders, it’s incumbent upon us to serve our teams by helping them along this journey.

Here are some suggestions. These aren’t necessarily in any sort of order; they’re more just random thoughts that I’m hopeful will help you think through your own personalized strategies for serving your teams when they’re hurting.

Leadership Tip 1: Listen. A lot.

Resist the urge to begin offering feedback right away. It’s a normal, human, and well-intentioned thing to do; but interrupting to do it may prematurely cut off their expression of pain and emotion. It’s important for them to get that out, and it’s important for you to listen sincerely and deeply to them as they do.

Leadership Tip 2: Listen not only to what they’re saying, but also to what they’re not saying.

Often just as telling as what folks are saying is what they’re not saying. Listen for those things. Make mental notes, and ask appropriate follow-up questions when the time is right.

[bctt tweet=”Leaders listen not only for what their teams are saying, but also for what they’re not. #leadership”]

Leadership Tip 3: Listen for and note themes. (Noticing a trend yet?)

As they’re expressing their pain, you’ll often see that it’s not just one thing or event that’s taken place. It’s more likely been a series of things that have happened. Listen carefully, and you may begin to notice certain trends, or themes, or even people, that run throughout their narrative that may have at first seemed isolated or disconnected if you weren’t paying attention. This can provide helpful insight into the sorts of things that have a negative emotional and/or psychological impact on your teammate.

Leadership Tip 4: Don’t correct them at this point.

Remember, at this point, you’re listening to their perceptions of events and attitudes and people and so on. They’re hurt and emotional, and like most of us, they may exaggerate here and there in the heat of the moment. There will come a time when you’ll want to come alongside them and help them untangle the difference between perceived reality and actual reality, but the immediate aftermath of the event and/or pain is likely not the time for that.

Leadership Tip 5: Carefully, gently, attempt to get to the underlying reason for the pain.

Sometimes — though not always — the pain you’re seeing and the event/person being discussed are not the core cause of the pain. They may be the most recent irritant of a pre-existing hurt, if that makes sense. So listen carefully, and when the time is right, ask some well-crafted follow-up questions to determine the root cause.

Leadership Tip 6: Control your emotions.

To the best of your ability, control your emotions. This can be quite difficult, especially since you also want to empathize, but your calmness can help de-escalate the situation and help your teammate think clearly and feel safe enough to speak to the pain.

Leadership Tip 7: Resist the temptation to “fix them.”

You don’t fix people. But even if you could fix people, that’s not the point initially. This can be especially difficult for certain personality types that are more prone to want to immediately give them a bullet point list of action items and then call it good. That will just lead to mutual frustration; as they’ll feel dehumanized and patronized, and you’ll feel frustrated because your methods aren’t producing the results you wanted.

Leadership Tip 8: Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know what to say.

It’s not as important that you’re a psychology expert as it is that you’re present, listening, and sincerely care. So be real and vulnerable, even in moments like these; and if you don’t know what to say, say that.

[bctt tweet=”Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. #leadership”]

Leadership Tip 9: Commend them for their vulnerability.

As leaders, we’re to lead the way in demonstrating vulnerability, and we’re to be creating a context within which vulnerability is applauded, not punished. So it’s important in situations like this to commend them for being human and vulnerable in front of you. They’re likely feeling all kinds of embarrassed and vulnerable; but you commending them for their courage can help them feel a bit safer in this moment, and can set the stage for continued honest dialogue down the road, be it about the current situations or something entirely unrelated.

Leadership Tip 10: Always be prepared to refer them to appropriate employee assistance programs.

The reason I say to always be prepared to do this is because if you’re not prepared to do it, you probably won’t do it because it can be a pretty awkward thing to say if you’re just stumbling through it on the fly.

Leadership Tip 11: When the time is right, begin shifting the conversation to how you can collaborate with them to think through ways they can move forward in a healthy manner.

This will look different from person to person and situation to situation, but it’s important that there be some forward momentum following the expression of pain and/or frustration. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering; it can be (and probably should be) a baby step. But it needs to be something. Further still, it needs to be something they can own. Most of the time, pain is the result of a situation in which the person harmed was not in control. The forward momentum, coupled with their control of that forward momentum, is a very helpful and healthy dynamic.

There’s obviously much, much more we could talk about here; and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Like I mentioned at the top, this is more to get you thinking through how you want to approach these situations when you encounter them. My hope is that if you think these things through, you’ll be more inclined to enter into these scenarios eager to serve your hurting teammate rather than just trying to figure out how to get them back in action as soon as possible.

All that said, what suggestions would you add? What sorts of things have you seen work? Have you been hurt before? If so, what did a leader do to help? Or, if you’ve been dealing with a teammate who’s struggling, what sorts of things did you do that seemed to be most helpful to them?

2 thoughts on “Leadership and the Emotionally Battered Employee

  • First, I don’t buy into the servant leadership titles; it’s probably more of a personal thing with me but no matter.

    Second, I’ve come into positions where I had to deal with this very thing. I noticed it on day one, how the rest of the organization I’d just joined was taking advantage of the people who now reported to me. By 3 that afternoon I’d written a letter that went out to every director in the hospital telling them that everything my department was doing for them stopped immediately and that any questions about it had to come to me.

    I’ve always believed a good first step, when needed, is to show employees that you actually care about them and support them and will do what’s necessary for them to be able to do their jobs and have some self respect in the eyes of others on the outside.

    Without every single employee doing their job, the entire core of an organization crumbles. To me that’s not only good leadership but shows empathy and that a leader is paying attention to what’s going on and acting on it.

    And one doesn’t have to be a servant to do that.

    • Hey Mitch! Thanks for stopping by, checking out the post, and leaving your thoughts. Much appreciated.

      To me, it actually does look like you were thinking through how you might best serve your team in such a way that they’d not only feel respected and empowered, but also be able to perform well within their roles. Like you said — and I happen to believe it’s always needed — people need to understand that you do care about them, and not just as employees, but as human beings. I think your actions showed that. It showed you were willing to go to bat for them.

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