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When Your Team Offloads Their Stress onto You (HBR)

5 strategies to help you perform as a leader without burning yourself out.

what to do when your team blames you, Dina D. Smith

(Originally published in HBR. Image: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images)


Leaders have long been the audience for negative emotions in the workplace, from listening to employees’ complaints about difficult situations or colleagues to hearing their disappointments about missed promotions and other unmet expectations.


However, with shifts in the workplace and heightened employee expectations for broad emotional support from their managers, leaders now handle an abundance of additional weighty topics. The ever-widening range of issues can include an employee’s burnout or mental health challenges, their family or relationship problems, their medical concerns, or financial stressors.


One recent study showed that leaders help their coworkers with personal issues and worries an average of about once daily, nearly as frequently as they help with work-related matters. However, shouldering this emotional load is not equally distributed but falls disproportionately on select leaders. These leaders are toxin handlers: managers who voluntarily bear the pain and complex emotions — sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger — that are naturally present in all organizations. They notice and care about the well-being of others and understand that when people are distressed, their ability to deliver their best work and collaborate is diminished. They recognize the benefits of a healthy workplace and step in to alleviate and buffer the pain and burdens of organizational members so the show can go on.


For instance, take my client, Jordan, a senior leader on a product management team fractured by the entrenched interpersonal conflict between two other leaders. While still carrying a full load of regular work, Jordan spent hours working behind the scenes, enabling the team to function and the work to continue. Jordan listened empathetically, allowing team members to offload feelings of hostility, resentment, and hopelessness, gently counseling the two warring leaders toward a resolution while simultaneously calming the distress of their colleagues.


Though toxin handlers like Jordan often go unrecognized and unrewarded by their company, they are key enablers of organizational effectiveness. By stepping in and absorbing others’ pain, they reduce negative emotions and control them from spreading, enabling employees to stay productive and high-quality work to continue. However, frequently handling others’ negative emotions can be detrimental, leading to compassion fatigue, burnout, and reduced effectiveness if not managed correctly.


If you’re one of these unsung heroes driving workplace health and productivity, it’s crucial to take measures to reduce the personal toll of playing this critical organizational role. Here are five practical strategies for taking care of yourself so you can do the vital work of also caring for others.


Seek to understand — not to feel

When we listen to other people’s problems or complaints, we can unknowingly take on their negative emotions. Indeed, studies show that leaders feel and perform worse after helping followers with personal issues and may be more likely to mistreat others later in the day.


Fortunately, this research also revealed a remedy. When others vent to you, adopt an information-seeking stance. In other words, focus on asking questions to better understand the situation and the person’s frustrations and concerns rather than putting yourself in their shoes and feeling what they feel. For example, if someone shares their struggles and pain with you, you might ask, “Can you help me understand the main challenges you’re facing right now?” or “How is the issue impacting you and your daily responsibilities?”


This cognitive approach shields your emotional state and health from being incidentally impacted by the other person’s negative emotions. Additionally, by asking questions and seeking to understand, you gather valuable insights and grasp their perspective, enabling you to provide solid support without sacrificing your own mood and performance.


Install boundaries

Like many toxin handlers, you may find it gratifying to support other people. However, it’s also crucial to set boundaries related to your time. As Erik, a senior leader and toxin handler in a large data science function shared, “When someone calls me up and asks, ‘Do you have a few minutes?’ it’s usually code for them being distressed. I know it’s going to be a lot longer than a few minutes.” Erik regained control over his time by setting bi-weekly office hours, allowing employees broad access to his counsel while still protecting his time.


During times of broader organizational upheaval — such as a restructuring or layoff — when many people feel stressed or upset, establishing a series of small-group roundtables can be helpful. Again, you make yourself available to allow employees to vent and process their negative emotions, but in a scalable way that leaves you time for your “regular work.”


It’s also essential to set boundaries related to the nature of your relationship with your coworkers. While you have an invaluable gift for helping employees feel comfortable sharing their whole selves, remember that your role is to support them professionally, not to act as a therapist. If an employee shares deeper personal issues or mental health challenges, avoid overstepping by focusing on listening and connecting them with professional resources versus being the resource yourself.


Savor your positive impact

When people confide in you about their struggles, it’s a high compliment. It shows they trust you to listen with empathy and keep their confidence. However, due to emotional contagion, listening to and helping people with their problems can, in turn, weigh on your mood and deplete you.


Fortunately, targeted reflection can help alleviate these damaging impacts. Research has shown that when leaders acknowledge the prosocial effects of their efforts to help others, it protects their emotional state and can reduce burnout. Other research demonstrated that reflecting on positive leadership qualities decreases leaders’ feelings of depletion, thereby heightening their engagement and influence at work.


To unlock these benefits, take a few minutes each day and ask yourself questions such as: How does being there for others make me a more effective leader? What benefits or positive difference did my support provide this person? Who else benefits from the support I provide others at work?

Taking the time to pause and savor the difference you’re making sustains your ability to continue generating that positive impact.


Show yourself equal care

Confidential behind-the-scenes work can feel isolating and lonely, and seeking your own support is essential. Do you have colleagues playing a similar toxin-handling role? Sharing experiences and receiving support from peers who understand can help alleviate the emotional burden. If finding a support network is challenging, consider contacting a therapist or coach.


Have self-compassion for your role as a toxin handler. It’s demanding work. For instance, if you’re criticizing yourself for a missed deadline because you’ve been supporting your team, remind yourself, “I’ve been prioritizing my team’s well-being, and it’s natural that some deadlines will slip.” Remember, too, that no matter your effort, it’s impossible to completely fix everyone’s problems and pain. Accepting that you’ll have both wins and losses is crucial for tamping down stress and strengthening your resilience.


Finally, be sure to take regular breaks to replenish your energy and resources. Even short breaks can boost your well-being and performance.


Tie your contributions to performance

Because toxin handling happens behind the scenes, you will need to highlight your efforts to get the credit you deserve. To help others recognize and value your contributions, frame them in the language of performance and outcomes.


For example, take Priya, a toxin handler within a sales organization unsettled by a recent reorganization. Imagine if she’d told her boss, “I had a steady stream of upset team members in my office; everyone is worried.” Contrast that with this articulation: “The organizational changes created a lot of uncertainty, and it’s essential to address it to maintain productivity. I spent the morning with the team, and we made good headway. The team is beginning to concentrate on our goals again.” By linking her contribution to business outcomes, Priya garnered respect and support from her boss for her efforts.


Beyond attaining near-term rewards and support, recognition for your toxin-handling activities is essential because formal acknowledgment of this work can help buffer you from the harmful effects of taking on this role for the organization.


Being a leader in today’s evolving workplace is more emotionally demanding than ever and especially so if you’re quietly sustaining the emotional well-being of your team or others. Implementing strategies to help you perform this vital role effectively benefits you and the entire organization, creating a resilient, productive, and healthier workplace for everyone.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina

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