In my article last week, I explored the emotions that people in our workplaces are feeling right now – fear, sadness, anger, guilt and, of course, there’s happiness as well. This week, I’m turning the focus onto those who are leading in our workplaces. 


Over the summer, I checked in with business leaders to find out how they were faring. The most common answer was ‘I’m fine.’ However, it wasn’t unusual for these same leaders to express concerns about the emotional impact Covid-19 was having on their leadership peers.  I found that interesting – how come leaders felt fine personally but noticed that their colleagues were stressed? 


I suspect one of the reasons is that, as leaders, we’re used to putting on our ‘game face.’ Our standard message becomes ‘I’m fine’ even as our behaviours emit the message that we aren’t so fine. Evidence of lower levels of patience or increased tension in meetings can express a lot that we choose not to verbalise.


Look, I don’t want to be a doom-monger and if you’re feeling on top form right now, that’s great. Enjoy it and tuck this away for a day when things seem a little grey. Today’s article is really focussed on those leaders who are tired, stressed, anxious, exhausted, worried, fed up (all words that leaders I’ve spoken to over the last couple of weeks have used when I’ve asked how they are). The thing is, ask these same leaders what they’re doing to manage how they’re feeling, and the answer is usually either “Oh, nothing” or “Well, I’m on holiday over Christmas.”  This is for you if you’re amongst these leaders because neither of these is a great strategy 😊.


Here are some points to help you figure out a more effective approach.


1.   Notice how you’re feeling. I’m going to share an easy way to do this; one that I learned from a wise mentor some years ago. I was going through a particularly stressful time and, during a conversation, my mentor suddenly said, “You know Heather, I heard that the first time you said it, so I don’t need to hear it again.” “What?”, I asked (genuinely confused by the statement). My mentor went on to point out that I had repeatedly said “I’m exhausted.”  She then went on to point out that I was the person who wasn’t listening, that I was repeating this message because I needed to listen to me. It was important because only I could take action to manage my exhaustion. I’ve used this a lot over the years and have found that, noticing the things I keep repeating about how I’m feeling, is a powerful and simple tool. I hope you do too. Try it. Just pay attention to how you’re describing what you’re feeling in conversations with others. What do you say over and over again? Consider if you’re actually the person who needs to pay attention. 


2.   Accept that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. One of the challenges for us as leaders is that, even as we notice what we’re saying to ourselves about how we’re feeling, another voice comes in telling us to get on with things, that we can cope. We even feel guilty about not being on top form. How helpful is that? You’re not feeling so good AND you’re feeling guilty about it too. What a toxic combination.


3.   Recognise that the feeling is not simply ‘in your mind’ – that the underpinning emotion is a physiological reality. The four primary emotions are joy, fear, sadness and anger, and underpin most of our feelings. The emotion is the actual physiological thing that is happening, the feeling is the word we are using to express it. For example, with feelings like stress, anxiety and worry, the underpinning emotion is fear.  The feelings of excitement and ‘looking forward’ to something are underpinned by the emotion of joy. When we feel irritated by or frustrated with someone or something, chances are we’re experiencing a mild version of the emotion of anger towards them. And finally, feeling down, fed up or low in energy can well be underpinned by sadness. Changes in emotion bring about hormonal changes (increase in adrenaline, cortisol or testosterone, for example, or decrease in serotonin). The hormonal changes impact how our body functions. Because we don’t tend to experience the hormonal changes in the same way that we experience our muscles aching as a result of a cold or that our hand is sore because we burned it on the cooker, we tend to ignore them. That is a big mistake. Feelings are underpinned by emotions. Emotions are a physiological reality.


4.   Ask yourself how you would treat this emotional impact if it were an obvious physical injury. Would you be resting more? Would you be protecting the injured limb? Of course, you would! So, ask yourself what you need to do to treat the emotional injury and do it. Trust the answer you give yourself enough to act on it. A couple of years ago I worked through these points with a leader who was stressed. When we reached this question, the answer to “How would you be treating this emotional impact if it were an obvious physical injury?”, was “I’d be at home in bed, I might even be in hospital – I certainly wouldn’t be at work.” Only then did they realise just how stressed they actually were and take appropriate action as a result.


5.   Respect your answer. If that voice in your head is still saying ‘get on with it’, ‘there’s no way you can stop’ or ‘you’ll be fine, just keep going’, ask yourself if you’d ignore a respected colleague or team member if they needed the support you need right now. I suspect the answer to this is “No”. So, why ignore your own answers? And, if you’re still in doubt, remember that you have been leading during an exceptionally challenging year. If that year has brought benefits for your business, and you are feeling on top form, fantastic. But if you’re tired, stressed, anxious, exhausted, worried, fed up…, you’re not in peak form to lead people who are themselves experiencing challenging times. Taking care of your own emotional well-being as a leader is not a luxury, it’s a necessity if you are to lead as effectively as you possibly can.

How Happy Are You Really?