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Leading through healthy selfishness


How do you lead stressed employees? Steve Knight says you have to get your own house in order before you can help others.

In today's productivity-obsessed and cost conscious workplaces, many employees are feeling emotionally disengaged from their organisation. Who can blame them? They're rarely involved or considered in decision making. In fact, they're almost treated like a transaction within the business. Stress, anxiety and resentment are rife. So, if you're the leader, what do you do?

"It is very difficult to support others if you are not in a good place yourself!"

First of all remember that, as a leader, you set the example for others and you play a key role in creating the environment, the atmosphere and the culture at work. How you feel, and how you respond to the environment, will cascade down to everyone in your team. So if you want to support other people and give them the attention they need, you have to ensure that you are also practicing healthy selfishness. It is very difficult to support others if you are not in a good place yourself!

Two things I would recommend are:

1. Ensure your needs are met
We all have physical and emotional needs and you have to ensure that your own needs are being met. Your main emotional needs are: security (a safe territory and an environment which allows you to develop fully); attention (to give and receive it); emotional intimacy (having relationships where you feel you're accepted and you belong); feeling part of a wider community; privacy (the opportunity to reflect and consolidate your experience); a sense of status within social groupings; a sense of competence and achievement; meaning and purpose (being stretched in what you do and think).

This list comes from Human Givens therapy, which is used to help those who are depressed, anxious, traumatised or addicted. These needs provide a useful checklist to think through. To support yourself, you have to get your physical and emotional needs in balance. The exact balance will vary from person-to-person. However it might help to think of when you were last in a positive emotional state. When did you last feel that you were able to cope effectively with the challenges you were facing? What was happening that enabled you to feel that way?

2. Don't neglect activities that help you cope with stress
There will be social connections, interests or activities outside of work that will keep your base level of stress low. You might attend a club, meet someone regularly for a drink, go to a gym, play golf or whatever. You might not realise how important these things are in terms of helping you maintain your ability to cope at work. However, if you let these things slip, because you're too busy at work, your base level of anxiety goes up and this diminishes your capacity to cope with the pressures at work. Suddenly the same level of stress that you had before tips you over. This can be doubly disconcerting because you feel you suddenly can't handle what you were previously able to cope with.

"Share everything and you can create chaos and uncertainty; share nothing and you stop people being able to perform"

It's important to understand: what do you do outside of work that helps you cope? Where do you get support? Who do you connect with and spend time with? Also, within the workplace, who do you meet up with? Who do you get coaching or mentoring support from? What are you doing to nurture the relationships that matter to you inside and outside of work?

Having put your own house in order, there are three things you can do to help your people to feel more emotionally engaged:

1. Control your response
As a leader, you can control your response to the situations you are facing and to the messages you are hearing from the business. Good managers are adept at filtering those messages and understanding what's going on. Be selective about what you share and don't share. Share everything and you can create chaos and uncertainty; share nothing and you stop people being able to perform.

Crucially, your response to situations, how you act and how openly you communicate will set the tone for your immediate work environment.

2. Show a genuine interest in your people
Make the effort to notice what's going on with the individuals in your team. How are they coping with the situation? Has their attitude shifted? Do they have a problem or issue with anyone else? What motivates them? What do they enjoy doing?

By interacting with your team and nurturing those relationships, you'll be in a much better position to consider how you can help each person to develop. Ultimately the organisation is best served when the needs of its individuals are being met.

Is there an opportunity to change the way you talk about some of the issues and challenges you're facing? Where could you start to make a change?

3. Adopt a coaching approach
Managers under pressure often resort to a directive mindset. They'll tell people what to do. In the short term, this can make life easier for team members, as they can do whatever their manager has asked, with no element of responsibility. However, it's very disempowering and it doesn't develop the individual's long-term capability to cope on their own.

By adopting a coaching approach, and being less directive, you can expand someone's awareness and their competence. They'll start to become solvers of their own problems and they won't have to come running to your door each time - which will also help to further reduce your stress.

Remember, first help yourself; then you'll be in a better position to help others.

Steve Knight is a partner at Performance Consultants, the leadership development and coaching specialist. Drawing on its experiences in elite sport and business, the firm develops tailored programmes and events that enable leaders to enhance relationships, improve their effectiveness and achieve their goals. Steve has over 20 years experience in learning and development. His areas of interest include leadership development, improving personal effectiveness, supporting change and NLP. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Author Profile Picture
Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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