Leaders: Being “Touchy-Feely” Is No Longer Optional

Years ago I published this post “Yes, You’re Touchy-Feely. Get Over It.” One statement I wrote was: “whether we like it or not, every person operates daily with and through emotions. It’s simply part of our biology.”

These recent weeks have brought our shared and universal emotions to center stage, and much has been written about the importance of attending to our emotional states. What I’ve been noticing are the different and perhaps covert ways our emotions are making themselves known.

Everybody Handles Things Differently

Though we are all experiencing the same pandemic, one thing to note is obvious and worth remembering: people respond to fear in different ways.

In my conversations with leaders, teams, family members and friends – and in my own self-observations – here are some of the reactions people are experiencing:

  • Overwhelm: even simple tasks feel hard.
  • Distraction: normal focus has been scattered.
  • Hyper-activity: frenzy around getting things done or having things go a certain way.
  • Lethargy: not being interested in motivating yourself or others.
  • Self-regulation lapses: Outbursts of frustration, tears, agitation (which can lead to regret or shame).
  • Withdrawal: people may be less responsive to things they would normally address.
  • Overreach: continual outreach or feeling compelled to spread materials or news

This list could go on. These behaviors can overlap and trade places too. I’ve experienced most of them at various points.

Do you recognize yourself, your colleagues, or your family members in these? Can you see them for the very human reactions they are?

It took me a while to recognize these behaviors as reactions to the uncertainty, to fear, to the restricted and unusual ways in which we’re working and living.

Said another way, it took me a while to recognize my own humanity and to make peace with reactions that felt outside the norm or outsized in nature.

What is the Leader’s Responsibility?

Let’s bring this perspective into the virtual workplace.

It is not the leader’s job to take on the emotions of his/her team members. We are each responsible for our own emotional state. This is at the heart of self-leadership: paying attention to your mood, thoughts, triggers, and emotions. It is knowing when you need to call your own timeout.

It is a leader’s responsibility to periodically “get on the balcony” and to observe his/her team with this broadened perspective. How are these behaviors showing up on your team? What is the impact?

There is no one-size-fits-all in managing these reactions as they arise. A first step is to try and recognize them. When you observe people not showing up at their best, can you attempt an honest check-in, with an emphasis on empathy and curiosity rather than judgment or blame?

Talking as a team about these behaviors helps to normalize them, too. It can become a shared responsibility once the leader has opened the door and made the space for it. The opportunity exists to create a team norm for handling those times when these behaviors get the best of us.

To be clear: this is not easy! Yet turning a blind eye to it doesn’t make any of this easier. This is what I’d classify as “essential business” for leaders right now.

You won’t always get this right, but that isn’t the goal. Our human emotions are difficult to touch and difficult to feel. Being honest about that matters more now than ever.

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