3 Ways to Shift from Bullying Employees to Leading with Empathy
By Jay Forte
You have likely heard, “people quit people before they quit companies.” Employees want to work for managers and leaders who respect, value, and support them, not for those who bully and bark at them. So, if this is true, why are so many of today’s leaders and managers bullying and barking?
One word: stress.
Our bodies and minds were built to handle short-term bouts of stress. In those moments, our reactive, or limbic, brain rushes in, helping us to identify and respond to dangers – physical or emotional, real or perceived. But this is meant to operate in a short-term stress event, not long-term. For that reason, we don’t handle long-term bouts of stress very well.
Between the trauma of COVID, contentious elections, recurring quarantine, disappointment about holiday celebrations, and a pervasive attitude of anxiety and fear, we have been dealing with many tough issues for many months. This has led many people to have a mindless meltdown when met with something frustrating, irritating, or aggravating.
The important thing to note here is that there is a choice. You can choose to go into mindless meltdown mode, or you can choose to be mindful in your response to the situation. But you have to be self-aware and self-regulated in order to make that intentional decision. It starts with being mindful, tuned in to you.
But let’s be honest. No one is exempt from the slip to mindless meltdowns, including leaders, who are trying to manage these situations, their own health, their concern for their families, and the pressure for keeping their businesses not only surviving but thriving in dynamically changing environments. When they go into mindless meltdown, it shows in bullying, barking, intolerant, critical and short-tempered behaviors. Workplaces become tense. Relationships suffer. Customers leave. Employees disengage. The business suffers.
A calmer leader is more present to the information in each moment, which expands their field of vision, allowing for great opportunities and wiser decisions. Channeling the power and effectiveness of mindfulness and learning to calm and center oneself, particularly in periods of challenge and instability, is at the heart of great leadership.
So how do you interrupt the frantic and anxious moments to reconnect to a calm state so you can be more effective in dealing with a dramatically changing and challenging world? It comes through practice. Here are three things you can start to do now to shift away from bullying and barking and move toward the more productive behaviors of discussing and solving.
- Understand this particular moment in time. This moment is truly like no other, at least in recent history. When you take the time to fully understand all that has happened and is still happening, you develop context. Understanding the stress your teams are in, as well as the stress you and your family are in, helps you to understand the reactions you are witnessing. Team members who write caustic emails, refuse to actively participate in Zoom meetings, or continually miss deadlines are challenging, but taking the time to understand what may be inspiring this behavior can provide the empathetic context needed to find the energy to make the commitment to respond instead of react. As the saying goes, “people respond from their level of awareness.” Remember this because, as we’re seeing regularly in our world today, few are self-aware enough to recognize they need to create better habits to successfully manage their stress.
- Expand your awareness of your moods and emotions. One of the challenges of being stressed is that we can’t see how we are acting; we are not aware of our bullying and barking. We are so distracted and stuck in a moment of overwhelm that we flash from moment to moment, not really present to them. To develop greater awareness of your moods and emotions, post a reminder in a place you constantly see (computer screen, refrigerator door, bathroom mirror) that reminds you to breathe and to ask yourself to notice how and what you are feeling. I personally like the phrase, “Get present; I am right here, right now, what am I feeling?” It reminds me to be part of this moment and all that comes with it. I don’t have to judge it, but I can use it to focus internally on what I am feeling and what external factors may be influencing it. Develop your reminder to first internally to tune in to your emotions and moods. Are they productive? Are they unproductive? What you notice or don’t notice will influence how you respond.
- Develop go-to tools to reclaim the calm when you are feeling anxious or stressed. Let’s say you notice you are feeling stressed, anxious, irritated, or even frustrated. Left unchecked, these emotions may inspire snide comments, unprofessional criticism or even unethical requests, essentially bullying and barking. As the leader, the workplace needs you to be calm, sane and in control, so this would be the time to access tools you created to deal with this exact moment. These tools could include things like a short meditation, breathing exercises, a walk outside, reading something inspirational, journaling, spending time with a hobby, talking to a friend, or anything else that brings you back to a moment of calm. That moment of calm is, after all, a chance to reconnect with yourself when the world is crazy and stressful. Your role as the leader, after all, is to respond in the most productive way possible. Having tools or a practice that helps deliver you from the bullying behaviors is key in a world that you know will always bring challenges and obstacles. Not letting them distract or own you will be critical for your success.
Your world needs you to be wise, calm, and responsive. This isn’t easy when you feel anxious, fearful, and aggravated. Regardless of the external factors that may inspire these unproductive emotions, you need to show up calm and sane. Developing the awareness of what inspires these feelings, understanding that nearly everyone is challenged with them and that it is your responsibility to manage your emotions and moods, is critical to staying mindful and effective in a stressful world. Though it may seem easier to bully and bark, what your employees really need from you is calm and steady leadership, able to self-regulate, and provide the clarity they need to weather challenges.
In these tough moments, others need a little bit of love, not anger. And for you to deliver that, you will need to develop a little bit of love for yourself.
As President and Founder of The Forte Factor and certified executive coach, Jay Forte speaks to thousands of CEOs and Talent Management / HR professionals each year, introducing them to practical approaches to hiring, engaging, managing, developing and leveraging talent. He helps organizations build high-performing teams through his coaching, educating, and consulting. He is the author of Fire Up Your Employees and Smoke Your Competition, and The Greatness Zone – Know Yourself, Find Your Fit, Transform the World. You can learn more about him and his services at www.thefortefactor.com.
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