You might feel a little frustrated when someone you manage comes to you all worked up about a seemingly minor issue. They have hit some stumbling block and are over-reacting, you think.
In fact, you probably wonder why they are not handling this on their own and leaving you out of it? That’s what professionals do.
But these often turn out to be moments where your leadership and guidance is needed most, just not in the traditional way.
They don’t need help with the mechanics, they need help with the emotional processing. Here is where you have an opportunity to bring the leadership traits of vision and perspective and support together at the micro level.
Many people are operating with a general anxiety these days. That is difficult to address and may even require professional help. But if one of your staff comes to you with a specific incident, no matter how minor or straightforward it might seem, they are giving you a window of opportunity to provide meaningful help.
The very first thing the person likely needs is for you to simply listen. You can give them the opportunity to fully process the precipitating incident.
Giving your time and attention in this way shows that you think what they have to say is important. You are listening to them as a person not just a professional.
The work of processing tasks and completing assignments happens in the messy realities that humans create. Listening shows that you understand that the complexities and nuances create challenges beyond the project plan charts and graphs.
Of course, the act of telling you the full story also helps them to process the event and their emotions. That alone can be a huge relief. It might be the first opportunity they have had to talk it through for themselves.
One of the reasons your staff shares these mini crises with you is to make sure that you understand they are trying really hard to do a good job. They are frustrated, but they are also perhaps seeking your recognition and support. Give it to them.
Let them know that you can empathize with their feelings.
You may feel like they are overreacting. You may think that there are some obvious solutions. Maybe you even think that they are mis-perceiving something.
Don’t let that get in the way. Before you help with advice and counsel, you need to validate and support their feelings.
After all, no matter what the facts are, they are feeling the way they are feeling and that is that. You cannot question that. But you can support them and show some understanding.
Next, help reconsider
At this point you have heard the story and their interpretation of events. They have had a chance to talk it through for themselves. They have had a chance to vent emotions. And you have demonstrated support for their feelings.
Now, you can help guide them into a more analytical mode. You can help them consider other potential interpretations and possibilities.
As an example, let’s say they are upset because a vendor did not follow through on something. That’s frustrating, unprofessional, and upsetting. Your staff member is probably worried that it reflects poorly on them, particularly in your eyes.
But now that you have listened to all the facts and helped to vent emotions, you can work with your staff member to consider other possibilities.
It may be that the vendor missed the deliverable because the person who was supposed to do it became suddenly and seriously ill, was dealing with a family emergency, or may have even been fired.
However unlikely these explanations might be, these are still possibilities. Over the course of my career, I have seen all of these happen.
Also, people do make mistakes. We all mess up our schedules, lose track of time, or miss a confirmation email. It happens and maybe we could be more understanding.
By considering alternatives, you can coach your staff member to maybe reserve judgement for a bit. It is likely that more facts will be gathered to fill in missing pieces of the story at some point. It is not worth getting all worked up now, or worse, overreacting in some way and making the whole thing worse.
Finally, help strategize a response
As you help reconsider possibilities and re-examine things dispassionately, you can help guide their response.
This is incredibly valuable because now you are standing shoulder to shoulder with your staff member and helping them to craft a good plan. And they will know that they have your support and backing in this response.
They have processed the emotion, received your support, considered missing or incomplete or misinterpreted information, and developed a response based on long-term goals aligned with their manager’s guidance.
This is precisely how calmer minds prevail.
And this is how real leadership is done. If you can help someone process their emotions productively, put a situation into its appropriate strategic context, and come up with a thoughtful way to respond, then you have done a good job as their manager.