Hidden Signs of Burnout
Part of every career-oriented professional and leaders' toolkit should be the ability to recognize the warning signs of burnout so you can take steps to prevent it from escalating (for yourself and others). Burnout is a very cluttered phrase; it’s often referenced after a hard day at work “I feel so burnt out today!” as readily as it’s used in the doctor’s office to describe physical and emotional symptoms that put your health at risk.
These signs can be invisible to you, masquerading as a time-limited busy period of work and life, except when the busy period ends you don’t feel yourself bouncing back (if it ends, often new busy-ness replaces old). These signs are often also invisible to others because you mask them, unsure what they mean, or unable to address questions or concerns from others about any associated changes in mood or behaviour.
If left unchecked, burnout can have a significant impact on your productivity, physical welfare, relationship health, and emotional wellbeing. Learning to recognize the warning signs of burnout empowers you to take the necessary steps to prevent it from impacting physical health (for yourself and others).
BURNOUT SIGNS & RISKS
One of the primary symptoms of burnout is feeling emotionally drained and detached from work, colleagues, and others (clients, family members, etc.); particularly if this is an unwelcome change from the way you normally feel about work/home. This feeling of disengagement is often a sign you may be emotionally exhausted (reducing contact to focus on work without getting the desired relief) or you’re not being/feeling like yourself (isolating yourself so others don’t notice or so you don’t have to address their comments/concern). When used as a coping mechanism, disengagement reduces your motivation and ability to perform at your best. Other signs of burnout that often accompany a need to disengage include chronic fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and difficulty in concentrating, making it challenging to complete tasks that are simple or routine.
Another indication of burnout is a loss of initiative and creativity for work and activities you normally enjoy, leading to a lack of enthusiasm and diminished ability to problem solve. You may also feel like you’re not making a meaningful difference or that your contributions are not valued, leading to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in your work. When this is present it can be hard to know if the meaninglessness came first, causing emotional detachment and exhaustion, or if it was a because of those experiences, but all are signaling your welfare needs more of your attention.
Other common signs you may experience are physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal problems, which can further exacerbate feelings of fatigue and your stress levels. These are all signs of burnout risk you should discuss with your doctor to support your care and wellbeing.
SUPPORTING OTHERS WITH BURNOUT
One of the biggest challenges can be supporting someone (at work or at home) who you feel may be burning out. Empathy is crucial when dealing with burnout, as it helps you understand and connect with others' experiences (and provide self-compassion for your own if you’re burning out). When you see colleagues/family members struggling with burnout, offer compassion and a listening ear, encouraging them to take breaks, seek help, and engage in self-care activities that support their emotional and physical wellbeing.
Working to create a positive environment by promoting healthy work habits, like digitally disconnecting from work, working a humane schedule, encouraging open communication, and consistently valuing the impact of other’s work also goes a long way to support someone who may be suffering. Signalling acceptance of doing what’s right for health and wellbeing, particularly at work, provides the psychological safety needed for employees and colleagues to make decisions that are right for them in preventing burnout, or doing what they need to recover from it.
Burnout is a prevalent and growing issue in today's workplace, and it’s preventable. But to eradicate it as a threat to wellbeing the risks and signs must be known and taken seriously – talking about them to build awareness and normalize the experience keeps burnout risk from hiding in plain sight. By recognizing the warning signs and practicing empathy towards ourselves and others, you can take steps to prevent burnout and create a more supportive and healthy work environment for yourself and those around you.
We are asked to choose a profession at a place in our lives where we have the least amount of work and life experience; in our late teens and early 20’s. And we then go into that profession with lofty ideals, or at least a lot of optimism. But not before we’ve put a lot of time, money and effort into getting educated/credentialed.
So, what happens when you discover the profession you chose isn’t delivering on what you thought you’d be doing (or how you thought you’d feel doing it)? It creates a crisis of identity.
When I chose human resources (HR) as a profession, it was after hearing a very inspirational talk from someone who worked in HR. She highlighted that HR professionals were sought after, consulted on business needs and part of delivering an amazing employee experience, one that could impact the success of an organization. I was in!
Three years and many thousands of dollars for courses later, I was working in HR and learned a few things. HR could impact the success of organizations, but I’d also learned many organizations didn’t know what HR could do, how to partner with HR practitioners to make it effective, or how to navigate the tension between business needs and human needs. It took me another 15 years of trying to make this profession work to figure out that it was not fulfilling; it was not the right work for me (at least, not any more). That was way too long… staying in a role that didn’t align with my values, and where I couldn’t have a positive impact, negatively impacted my health.
I could have changed sooner, but I was so invested, emotionally, financially and professionally I didn’t know how to identify as anything else. And it wasn’t even out of a fear of changing professions; it was more a belief that I must be doing it wrong for it not to deliver on the amazing outcomes I first learned about in that inspirational talk. I wanted to believe in the dream. It’s only now in the “rear-view mirror” that I can see what that belief cost me. Trying to do the same things over and over again and hope for different results wasn’t just holding me back, it was hurting me and the people I loved.
I am not alone in experiencing this crisis of profession, nor in it creating a storm of other consequences, one of which was burnout. It’s possible to appreciate your profession but hate the work. It’s more than OK if what you thought you wanted to do as a young adult is not what you want to do in mid-career. It’s healthy to admit that it doesn’t work for you anymore. It’s good to consider stopping before it impacts your wellbeing. It’s sensible to continue until you have a “plan B”.
And if you need help figuring this out, let’s talk.
Confidence is comforting (for yourself and others), that’s why you project it. But what everyone else can see on the outside isn’t always what’s going on inside. And it’s what’s going on inside that really counts towards your emotional wellbeing.
Knowing deep down that something isn’t working for you in the way life and work are fighting it out for your time and energy is a good indication that your wellbeing is caught in the crossfire of your commitments. When was the last time you felt your many commitments (professional and/or personal) made you a happier, well-rounded person? Delivering on commitments can build confidence, but having too many of them can crush it.
Confidence is all about knowing how good you are at what you do, AND being able to deliver on that goodness in the right ways. In my corporate life I can count on one hand how many times I had the luxury of delivering on something with absolute confidence. And when I did, my colleagues were just grateful I delivered, having no idea the amount of thoughtfulness, expertise and time that went into confidently delivering it. Or the sacrifice it took, because to get to confidence in my work I spent personal time away from my loved ones to get work done well.
And no one noticed. Except my family, who missed me. And my body who “white knuckled” me through the risk and audacity of spending many extra hours hunched over a keyboard to deliver something I could feel sure about.
Hot mess in the making; putting in all the emotional labour needed to get something to a point where I felt certain about it meant I over-delivered. And not once, but time and time again. Always hoping my boss, team or organization would notice the care, attention and detail I put into things. Always thinking I had to do it that way or I’d effect the reputation I’d worked so hard to build, disappoint the people who were counting on me – that I’d disappoint myself for not doing my best.
My organization was grateful, but they couldn’t see the “extra” I put into my work because I did it on the side; it was completely invisible to them. And, because they couldn’t see it, when they needed more from me, it meant more and more time working, even less time with my family or looking after myself.
I became trapped in a commitment and expectations spiral that made me irritable, over-whelmed, exhausted and sometimes very angry. It made my home life unpredictable. I wasn’t looking after myself. I didn’t feel good about myself as a spouse and parent. I didn’t feel good about myself as a person. I didn’t feel good about myself as a professional. Hot mess - the first causality was my confidence.
Setting expectations (yours and others) has more to do with self-confidence than you know. If you’re caught in an expectations/commitment spiral, ask yourself how it would feel to let yourself off the hook, and in doing that, deliver exactly what your organization needs with certainty?
It’s possible to do less with success and be confident - it’s part of creating a work life you can love.
I’ve worked for people I didn’t “connect” with. It was excruciating. Working with someone you can’t get a good read on, or who has a totally different communication style than you, makes it feel like you’re the one who has to make this work. That’s a lot of pressure! Over time that expectation becomes exasperating, especially if you’re the only one working on the relationship (because you’re not going to tell your boss you don’t like them… to their face). This is where managing up can be beneficial. There’s a lot of assumptions about what managing up is. The way I define it is setting healthy boundaries for mutual benefit in a professional relationship.
Managing up is an important skill to cultivate in today’s working environment, but it is also fraught with concern about authenticity and making sure you don’t stick your foot in your mouth, nor become a door mat. So, how can you manage up without losing yourself in the process? Key to this is understanding that it’s possible to build trust with someone whom you don’t like.
Fortunately, you often end up working with a boss you can connect with on some level, which is what makes it more difficult when you have to work harder at forming a relationship with one you don’t. I’ve worked with many clients who sacrificed their self-esteem on the altar of “likeability”, it is a soul-shredding process. Here is the truth, you and the people you work with are not always going to like each other (even with the best intentions). Over the span of your 30+ year career, you’re going to work with a lot of people you don’t enjoy, and from time-to-time that will include your boss. Here is the tricky bit, forging healthy working relationships anyway, based on clear communication and mutual benefit.
Finding mutual benefit involves empathy. Being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, including your bosses’, is hard work, but it is necessary for building a healthy working relationship. Examine your own biases about this person; what are they? Are they conditional (“If you support my ideas, then I’ll support yours…”)? The best bosses will challenge your thinking from time to time, so that “condition” won’t build a healthy relationship. Sometimes, your boss may not be able to share details with you or they may be swamped. This makes them human.
But this is not just about what they need, it’s also about advocating for what you need to be successful in your work. Boundaries are tricky things, because it feels like if you’re holding your boundaries, you get the results you were after. Sometimes, but holding healthy boundaries is more about being clear and compassionate about what you need in a timely way: “I understand things are very busy and you and I have not been meeting regularly, but there are some key things we need to discuss before they become problematic and I will need 30 minutes of your time today so we can both stay ahead of them.”
Your boss may still not make time for you, meaning you may not get the results you wanted, but you did hold a boundary. Now if something goes pear-shaped you can compassionately help your boss to see the value in meeting with you: “I appreciate that you’re upset because you were blind-sided in that meeting. I made every effort to discuss this with you beforehand. In the future let’s consider that when I ask for 30 minutes it’s important to make that time so you have everything you need.” You don’t need to own their anger, nor the outcome – holding healthy boundaries means you can gently remind them of what you did to support them, without judgement or shame (as tempting as that may be). This is more than a cover-your-ass move, it’s about holding others accountable for their actions, with compassion.
Nothing I’ve outlined above is easy or light work, but it doesn’t take long to do when you give yourself some dedicated time to sit and reflect. Going into reflection with the intention to be open and compassionate with another person, to see what is possible (rather than what you assumed, expected or hoped for) is the starting point to managing up.
The only person you control is yourself and that makes you the best place to start.
“The goal of managing upward up is not to curry favor… it’s about being more effective.”
~ Liz Simpson, Harvard Business School
Building trust is an important way to cultivate relationships that allow you to be more effective at work. If you think about a frustrating relationship you have in your working life, are you focused on making it more effective, or on being liked? Effective relationships are often thought to be built on likeability, but in fact they are built on mutual respect and trust (and if you happen to like each other, that’s a bonus). So, making it about the work you’re both invested in, and the organization you both support, will help you to build something healthy in a new relationship, or when building a relationship with someone with whom you don’t naturally connect.
Trust is present when there is mutual respect. It may be tempting to think that if someone likes you then there is mutual respect. Usually, but if you think about all the people you like, would trust all of them to look after something time sensitive or important to you? If not, it doesn’t take away from their likeability, but it does tell you something about trust; you can cultivate mutual respect and trust without actually liking someone. When you make it about the work, and what you share through the act of providing your expertise, skills and abilities (and less about whether or not you have anything personally in common), there’ll be enough common ground to build something together through work. A professional and personal connection may be important to build over time, but when that isn’t easy to do, start with the work and build from there.
This isn’t always a simple process. You may not like the way this person presents their ideas; they may have an interpersonal or communication style that sets your teeth on edge. You’ll be able to do this with more success if you can start with remembering (whatever your personal feelings are), this person is a human and worthy of acceptance and respect. If respect isn’t present, then you are unlikely to find an approach, or the words, to maintain, or further, your working relationship. You may also have to hold healthy boundaries with this person, ensuring you aren’t doing all the “giving”, and they all the “taking” (or vice versa).
Mutual respect is about having the difficult conversations necessary to cut through the ways of working that stand between you. You only control yourself, but that also means you have to consider speaking to others about any misunderstandings, or the things that aren’t working in your professional relationship, in a timely and empathetic way. Working together in a demanding environment can be tough; often there’s a lot of pressure, and what gets you through is knowing you’ll both deliver, even if you’re not each other’s favourite person, which is to say it’s always worth it to try and build mutual respect. So how do you do that with someone very different from yourself?
Start with compassion; first for yourself and then with this other person, and be willing to have non-judgmental conversations with the people you’re trying to build mutual respect and trust with, exploring what is, and is not, working in your relationship. Remember, it’s about ensuring you have what you both need to be more effective at work, so think about what you would like to say with that frame in mind: “I’d like to pick your brain about that last meeting, I think there are things there we can learn from that will help us both to be more influential.” Feedback with compassion is also key, it can make the difference between telling your colleague they are being too direct, and letting your them know what is helpful to include in their feedback to you to get the results you both want. Going in with strong feelings and assumptions about this person immediately makes things personal, and that often means compassion is not front and center, which impacts your delivery and the way you’re perceived.
Building mutual respect and trust takes time. It can be frustrating when it doesn’t immediately give you results, but stay the course and you’ll find you get what you need, even when working with someone very different from yourself.
Build Your Influence, Manage Up
Establishing mutual respect, and from there, nurturing trust and influence, requires a commitment to doing things that may not feel comfortable, and may need a lot of emotional energy to carry through. However, the outcomes include being able to incrementally, build trust and mutual respect with your boss so that when the time comes, you can present an out-of-the-box idea, or a contrasting point of view, and be heard.
Influence. A simple word that is also the holy grail of healthy working relationships everywhere. The ability to get others to think in new and different ways, consider innovative options, or just to listen to you, is not only highly productive for your work, it supports well-being. There is an “entrance condition” for influence, and that is trust. You may not like someone personally, but that doesn’t exclude you from being able to trust them in the work they do. Ever worked with someone whose communication style rubbed you the wrong way, but whom you also knew would absolutely hit their deadline? Trust doesn’t always come dressed in friendship, or even likeability. It comes from being consistent, communicative and clear. What this means is you and your boss may not socialize with each other at the next staff bar-b-que, but together you can still be highly effective because you’ve both invested in the work you do for the organization and each other.
Influence requires trust, because before your boss can stick their neck out for you, they have to know you are both aligned on what is important and meaningful in the work you do. This requires you to know what your bosses’ priorities are, and not only the strategic or operational items, but also the way your boss likes to receive information. Often, we communicate based on how we would like to be communicated to, not how we would like to be received by the listener. Being able to understand how your boss likes to be communicated to is a highly effective way to continually build trust, and influence.
All of these things will be important, but start with what is most important to your boss. Figuring that out, and using this information in a helpful way, can make the work you do more effective. This is not always an easy move, but if you spend time listening to the questions your boss asks, and how they communicate with you/your team, you’ll start to see a pattern emerging that can help you re-orient your communication to better meet your boss’s needs. You can also just ask how they prefer to receive information – a reasonable request that shows you are invested in your relationship at work.
Managing up doesn’t mean sacrificing your needs or “sucking up”; if you feel your boss is being unethical (in word or deed), or is not upholding the values and principles of the organization, then you have an important decision to make. You will not always be a good fit with your boss, but if there is absolutely nothing upon which to build a relationship that includes mutual respect, then consider what actions you could take (which may include speaking with your bosses’ boss, or looking for a different role).
Managing up should always be about building and maintaining healthy relationships that are mutually satisfying and empower both parties to be more effective in their roles. You’ll need to practice emotional management (whether you like, or dislike, your boss) and have the hard conversations necessary to course-correct or re-align with each other (remember, your boss will be doing this too). It also requires self-compassion. As you learn, be gentle with yourself, mistakes are a part of the learning process. Know that even the journey towards mastering the skill of managing up can lead to increased working life well-being.
Why No One is Burning Out at Work
Dawn was excited, her manager had FINALLY asked her to help with a big project. She knew it would mean working more hours to fit it all in with her current workload, but she was less concerned about that and more excited about the prospect of finally getting her boss to see what more she can do. Dawn was elated by this recognition of her abilities at work.
Dawn was sick. Again. Probably another migraine. Her head was throbbing. She didn’t feel like dragging herself out of bed, but today was an office day, and not only did she have to get up, she had to commute. She struggled to get moving, but managed to find a desk and log in just before 9:00. That’s when she saw the e-mail. Her boss wanted her to take on more files; not asking her, but telling her. She instantly felt worse – she couldn’t work more hours than she was already putting in. Three other members of the team had recently quit. Dawn had a sneaking suspicion when she was asked to join this project it wasn’t a way to recognize her abilities but to put a warm body in a seat.
Dawn and I are talking. She needs to make a job change and wants to know how to position her skills. We talk about why she wants to leave her current job. Dawn explains her family doctor wants her to take 6 weeks off work, but she doesn’t think she needs to stop working, just find a better job. Dawn asks if she can turn her camera off for this meeting because using the screen is making her migraine worse. As we talk, I can hear a hitch in her voice. Dawn is on the edge, but because she thinks escape (in the form of a better job) is right around the corner, she’s hanging in there.
I ask Dawn to tell me where she is on the burnout ladder. I can hear her tears as they fall near her microphone.
Dawn was trying to make it work, committed (even passionate) about doing a good job. Supportive of her team and organization, she didn’t want to abandon them for weeks on end with no replacement for her (and she was worried a leave of absence would get tied to her reputation at work). When something became unsustainable, she figured out the solution. While that helped to ease her conscience, it did nothing to acknowledge how long she’d been under persistent stress.
Just because you can see a light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t mean it’s there in time to avoid the well-being impacts that signal burnout risk. Seeing the end in sight doesn’t lessen the stress you’re under until you get there – and new work, or additional deadlines, keep the stress cycle going. So often professionals like Dawn justify what they’re going through (thinking its’s not burnout) because it’s “short-term”. But when they look back, they see the stress has been there a long time. Long enough to put them on the burnout ladder.
Where are you on the burnout ladder? Wherever you are, there are ways to move you up a rung (or two, or three) that don’t have to include quitting your job. My clients work towards making their roles, their careers, something that supports their well-being. They build skills and develop strategies to ensure they stay off the burnout ladder, creating a work life they can love. Dawn’s job used to make her really happy. She and I talked about what it would take to make her happy there again.
Working together, Dawn identified the things making work more stressful than it needed to be. Not all the stressors were coming from work, but many were. Dawn identified the ones within her control, and we came up with a workable plan to take back her power over her work, supporting her well-being. All without making any career limiting moves, or employment changes. And the best part? No more debilitating migraines.
No one thinks they’re actually burning out, but then you don’t always get to choose how stress at work is impacting your well-being. Just ask Dawn.
In early March we celebrate the contributions of women at work. I’m mentioning this now to give you some time to think about what you want to see from your organization, because I know how lack lustre these celebrations can sometimes be at work (your organization may need a head start). In the past, many organizations felt giving female staff members flowers to recognize the occasion was what was called for – and the “celebration” ended there. That’s not really what this day is about, is it?
If your organizations’ approach to celebrating the achievements of women is outdated (not all are), you may need to start this conversation now. Before an order for an abundance of long-stem roses is put in (do you really want to have to make the “grateful” face again, all the while wondering how this act recognizes women’s contributions at work, rather than their mere presence?).
The intention of an international day to celebrate women is to recognize the many amazing ways women have always contributed to our society and human achievement. And every woman knows one day a year to celebrate these contributions will never balance out the lack of recognition our gender has historically experienced (and continues to experience). But this is what change looks like, you have to start somewhere. The hope is this day will increase the will and ability of all of us to name the impact of women as consistently as we do that of men… and that’s where the whole flower thing (and similar “check-the-box” acts) just doesn't get this done.
I want to celebrate how women made what we do today possible.
I’ve worked for several telecommunication companies in my career, and all the products those companies made were only possible because of Hedy Lamarr. Hedy was an Austrian-American actress and inventor who pioneered the technology that forms the basis for today's WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth capabilities (including their security). You may know her as a hyper-sexualized movie icon from the 1930’s. I love the juxtaposition of a female Hollywood stereo type held up against the woman whose inventiveness has touched the lives of everyone who uses a wireless device. Her contribution has generated an incalculable amount of wealth for tech organizations and the global economy. When I give this some thought, my employment in that industry was made possible because of Hedy’s contributions.
Which women have contributed to making your job possible today?
It doesn’t take a lot of effort to figure out the historical roles’ women have played in making what your organization does possible (seriously, Google it). Learn the long-term impact of female contributors. If you need someplace to start your search, consider landmark legal decisions, patents (inventions), scientific research, medical break-throughs, social activism, journalism, art and exemplary acts of empathy that changed how we think, what we know, what we do and how we do it. All because of a woman (or group of women). Stuck? Here’s a great place to start (the link has lists of amazing women who do more than traditional science): https://500womenscientists.org/related-resources
If you really want to make this something, figure out how the contributions of women who currently work for your company are paving the way for the future success of your enterprise. And not just the highly visible women, but the ones who make the bread-and-butter things happen. The ones whose actions saved your organization’s reputation. Or whose patents/ideas make you money. Recognize your payroll person who faithfully processes accurate pay every 2 weeks, ensuring the basis of trust with your workforce (every employee you have) is held sacred – because of them employees (including you) get paid properly and on time. It’s an important job, one that’s often completely overlooked with respect to what it takes to make an organization successful. Without conscientious people in this position (which is majority held by women), your organization wouldn’t last.
This celebration is about understanding and recognizing women’s impact at work.
We don’t want roses, or a parade, or even organizational-wide recognition. We want to know that what we do makes a meaningful difference at work. We want to see that the women who came before us, facing incredible odds, and making the ultimate sacrifice to pursue their passions to make a difference (like Marie Curie and many others), are getting recognition commensurate with their impact.
We want to know how these women continue to make a difference because they’ve opened doors for ALL of us (not just other women).
So, think about how you’d like to see women recognized this March where you work, and start talking about it. No more roses need to die for this day. Hold your organization accountable for honouring the true spirit and intention of a day to celebrate the incredible impacts of women and how they touch all of us.
International Women of Color Day is March 1st. International Women’s Day is March 8th. To celebrate, I’ll be posting from now until International Women’s Day on the contributions of notable women who’ve made a difference to the way we work today. Follow me on LinkedIn to see who made the list (and why)!
There is a very fine line between being comfortable at work (secure in your expertise, wielding it with precision) and being uninspired by the sameness of it all.
Boredom happens in every job (even when you're busy), it’s a product of predictability and repetitiveness, which also happen to be two key things that can make work less stressful – it’s a balancing act.
Boredom happens for many important reasons – it’s a sign that can help your career, but only if you listen to what it has to tell you. Human’s get bored when:
AND we’re all adulting, so you know you need to get on with getting things done.
Listen to what boredom has to tell you, and consider what you may need to do to work with it:
So, while you are waiting for that next challenging assignment to come through, or to help you through a slog of mundane work, here are three ways to beat the boredom blues, making your work stand out in all the right ways:
While there will always be an aspect of every role that is boring (80/20 rule), make sure to keep an open mind and open dialog with your manger so they know what types of work interest and challenge you.
When your boss knows what types of problems you like to solve, you’ll find more of that work gets on your desk, making you relevant and enriching your career.
When you keep yourself engaged, you show-up at work in positive and noticeable ways, empowering others to trust your work.
Here's something I’m pondering. Better communication skills. It keeps coming up as a topic for my clients and network connections. I’ve been a human resource professional for 20 years, a coach and workshop facilitator for the last 10; in all that time the topic of communication has always been HOT. That’s 30 years of this being an area of concern for professionals. And it’s not like it hasn’t been worked on; everyone I’ve had the privilege to work with has received training on how to communicate, from being a better listener to getting clear with their message.
So, why does better communication continue to remain at the top of everyone’s professional development list?
There’s something fundamental missing in the majority of the resources out there. A void. A blind spot. Maybe it’s this; communication is principally about being clear and easy to understand within the context of a relationship - but in order to truly be an effective and adaptive communicator you need to work with the emotional undercurrent beneath all those words.
And that is not something I’m seeing expressly taught in the majority of communication training.
Words are great, love ‘em! But they can also be a shield, or they get in the way of what needs to be communicated. You can reach understanding, and still not get the outcome you need with communication, and that happens when feelings are not taken into account.
Yes, we’re communicating more carefully and inclusively, and that is a very good thing. But those aren’t the feelings I mean. Let me give you an example. I had a client who was a very skilled communicator, but she knew she wasn’t being effective. She would provide clear direction to her staff and still not get the outcomes she needed. When we broke it down, her staff were trying to do what she asked, but they weren’t feeling confident about being able to do it, nor were they comfortable asking for her support to help them do it well. They were afraid to look bad in her eyes, and proceeded to “fake it until they made it”. Which wasn’t working.
So, what was going on? She was a very approachable person, a supportive leader, and yet when she was communicating, it didn’t extend to reflect or capture the way her staff felt about the work they were being asked to do. My client was making assumptions about the way her staff felt about what they were doing (and that they would come to her if they needed support).
Working through this in coaching, my client and I came up with an effective strategy for her to use with her team. In addition to giving clear direction, she would then ask them (on a scale of 1-5) how comfortable they felt doing this work? My client recognized that leaving it at that might lead to a continuation of the “fake it til’ you make it” strategy her staff were used to using, so we added to it: “On a scale of 1-5 how comfortable are you doing this work, and why did you choose that number and not one higher?” (5 being “totally comfortable doing this work”).
This was a simple way to open up much needed dialogue qualifying how her staff felt about what they were being asked to do. In using this one simple strategy it created the necessary conditions for her staff to discuss their concerns, and give voice to the support they needed to get the desired outcomes. It was an absolute game changer for her and her team, without being “touchy-feely”.
Emotions are often the last thing we think about when crafting a message or communicating. Yet, if you don’t communicate with emotions in mind, you miss the point of communicating entirely. Emotions are the human GPS system; nothing happens unless a person’s emotions can get behind your request or message. That doesn’t mean people won’t try, but compliance is not the same as commitment (as my client discovered).
Communicating with emotion in mind requires emotional intelligence, which is also not something that is expressly taught in schools and organizations today. But coaching develops it. We all have emotional intelligence, and coaching helps you to harness yours so you can communicate effectively no matter what work throws at you.