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Emotionally Healthy Leadership

As I have the privilege to work with more and more teams, there is a common skill that continues to surface among the leaders who are most respected and trusted by their team, and those who have the most effective teams: the ability to identify, feel and process their emotions in a healthy and controlled manner.

I love this framework someone shared with me in the past year:

Level 1: You have a difficult call. When it’s over you go into your next meeting with the negative energy and emotions which puts everyone on high alert and negatively impacts the meeting.

Level 2: You have a difficult call. When it’s over you go into your next meeting and let everyone know you had a difficult call which is why they are experiencing the negative energy and emotions from you. At least the group knows it’s not about them, but it’s still disruptive to the meeting.

Level 3: You have a difficult call. When it’s over, you acknowledge to yourself that you are upset and work to identify the emotions you are feeling. If you don’t have time to feel and process them that moment, you make a plan for when you can come back to this situation to do that, and you actively release the negative emotions and energy and move into the meeting healthy and whole.

If you do have time, you make space to feel and process the emotions. Check in with what you need and find a safe, private space that allows for what you need. Maybe you need to simply sit at your desk and take some deep breaths to allow those feelings to pass through and shift.

Maybe you need to “junk journal” which is to write out all the things you are thinking and feeling, then shred the paper and move on. Maybe you need something more physical, like a walk, or to go out into your car and turn the music up and scream, punch the air or a pillow. Doing these things helps you shift so you can move healthy and whole into your next task or situation.

The best leaders acknowledge that their emotions impact their energy as well as their ability to think and work, and they have strategies to come back to a healthy and whole state. This doesn’t mean ignoring and suppressing our emotions and it doesn’t mean processing them out loud to anyone who is around us. It’s something in between.

Unfortunately, most of us are walking around are either completely unaware of, or in denial of, how our emotions impact us on a daily basis or we are allowing them to consume us and impact those around us. Two possible reasons for this: because emotions manifest in the unconscious mind, and we don’t know the difference between suppression and control. Consider this piece on emotions and feelings from Wake Forest University:

Many people use the terms “feeling” and “emotion” as synonyms, but they are not interchangeable. While they have similar elements, there is a marked difference between feelings and emotions.

Feelings. Both emotional experiences and physical sensations — such as hunger or pain — bring about feelings, according to Psychology Today. Feelings are a conscious experience, although not every conscious experience, such as seeing or believing, is a feeling, as explained in the article.

Emotions. According to Psychology Today, an emotion “can only ever be felt…through the emotional experiences it gives rise to, even though it might be discovered through its associated thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions.” Emotions are not conscious but instead manifest in the unconscious mind. These emotions can be brought to the surface of the conscious state through extended psychotherapy.

A fundamental difference between feelings and emotions is that feelings are experienced consciously, while emotions manifest either consciously or subconsciously. Some people may spend years, or even a lifetime, not understanding the depths of their emotions.

Feelings and emotions are an active and all-the-time part of who we are. Ignoring them doesn’t mean they aren’t affecting you and the world around you. I continue to hear leaders resist this idea because they are afraid of “having people crying and whining all the time.” I understand this fear, and know that this fear is not based in reality.

When we encourage people to ignore their feelings and emotions by saying things like, “I expect you to leave whatever happened at home at the door” we actually leave them stuck in the irrational and emotional part of their brain. They think about what happened even more and are unable to get back to the logical part of their brain which inhibits the quality of their work.

When we allow people to do what they need to do to process their emotions in a healthy and controlled way, they are able to actively move back to the logical part of their brain and re-engage in their work and relationships in a new way.

In the old way, the emotions and feelings are still there, we are simply suppressing and denying them. Sweeping things under the rug. Shoving them down. Pushing them away. The negative impacts of this include the inability to do quality work, feelings of guilt and shame which make people feel worse and lead to resentment or even hopelessness, outbursts or random acts of negativity toward others in their life and work, and can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

So what could a new way look like for those of us who are realizing that we’ve been suppressing instead of controlling our feelings and emotions? First, we need to move into a new way that is authentic to us. Each of us has to decide how we want to share and maintain our privacy and integrity. We all have different lines between what we consider professional, personal and private. We have different ideas of how we want to process and be perceived.

Our work as leaders is to figure out how we show up authentically, and then meet our people where they are. Meeting people where they are takes work. When someone is struggling, they may not want to talk about it. Yet if it is impacting their work and their relationships, it is our duty as a leader to point that out using facts and data, and ask how we can support the person in doing what they need to do in order to help themselves and the team continue to move forward.

Allow that person to lead the conversation about solutions and put the power back into their hands. Make suggestions if they are struggling to come up with something. That could be delegating some tasks to others, taking a break, getting support like a coach or a counselor, etc.

This is where things can get tricky and why it’s so important that we have built trust and respect within our teams and with each person on the team. Without building an environment where we are each willing to honor each other and meet each other where we are, it becomes difficult to continue to move forward and collectively get quality work done when one of us is struggling.

By building a healthy team dynamic, we realize that each of us will go through seasons where we need each other, even if that’s simply to step away to go on vacation. We must have understanding, trust and respect so we are willing to ask others for help or take on tasks for others knowing someday we will need them to reciprocate.

Building that healthy team dynamic and being willing to meet people where they are starts with us as leaders, doing our own work to develop ways to show up healthy and whole in the midst of the chaos and change in our life and work, and role model that behavior. This doesn’t mean we are healthy and whole in each moment. We can’t be. But we are staying in pursuit of healthy and whole, and trying in each moment to figure out what we can do to minimize the negative impact we have on the world around us and contribute in a positive way.

Here are some things that my team and I have learned that are helping us navigate these ideas. We are all close friends which has created an even trickier dynamic around these issues in some ways. We really have to consider where, when and how to discuss things to create the best dynamic. For instance, we used to start every meeting with highs and lows and have now transitioned to a “transparency tidbit.”

We care about each other deeply and want to know when someone is struggling and our business meetings are not the place to go into detail about those struggles. We changed to “tidbit” to give someone a small space to share if they need support, and open up the opportunity for participants to ask more about the situation and how they can help outside of the meeting.

I have had to consider what I share and when. If I get overly excited about an idea that is still being formed and throw it out too early, I freak my team out and can overwhelm them with the thought of doing one more thing when maybe it’s not really something we will do anyway. When I’m in ideation, I use other coaches and mentors to help me refine my ideas.

I have to work to respond vs. react. I like to move fast and I wear my emotions on my face. When I’m upset about something or disagree, I have to really tune into how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking and slow everything down. I have to be intentional to stay open, to ask questions, and remind myself nothing needs to be decided in that moment and everyone needs to be heard.

When I’m struggling with my place on the team or a certain situation with a teammate, I use a coach to help me think through how to consider a situation or if it should be addressed at all before reacting to it. I process my own stuff with my coach vs. with the team so I can show up healthy and whole during our meetings and our work together. I still tell the team what they need to know, but I’m not actively processing with team members, which saves time and emotional turmoil on the team.

What does this have you thinking about related to your approach, energy and actions or your habits and patterns that might need to shift in order to create a healthier team dynamic? I’d love to hear from you! If you could use outside support to think this through, or to give you save space to continue to develop on your leadership journey, we’d love to explore supporting you at The Restoration Project!

Written by: Lindsay Leahy, Dream Builder at The Restoration Project

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