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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?