Over the last few months, I have noticed a pattern during many of my coaching sessions – particularly with relatively new and mid-level leaders.
At the start of every session, it’s only natural for me to ask anyone sitting opposite me how they are feeling. If it’s early in our coaching relationship, the most common answer will be something along the lines of, “I’m fine”, “I’m good”, “I’m OK”, or “I’m busy” and I’ll accept that and carry on.
However, once we’ve been working with each other for a while (usually maybe at our third or fourth session together), I’ll let them give their standard automatic or predictable response, but after a slight pause, I will then ask, “how are you really?”.
Talk about opening the floodgates.
As if on cue, they will share some pretty deep, honest, and vulnerable feelings about how they’re absolutely drowning in work; how they’re afraid of losing their jobs; how they’re walking on eggshells and afraid to speak up about how much pressure they’re under, since they might then be perceived as weak and easily replaceable; how they’re feeling isolated and excluded from big decisions; and how they dread to even ask about taking annual leave.
You might want to read this last paragraph again. After all, this anxiety, panic, fear, paranoia, and deep, personal struggle could be coming from one of your employees.
Of course, I have asked many of my coaching candidates this very question, and from first-hand responses, it’s clear that for many new and mid-level leaders in particular, there are some pretty common themes behind the fear or hesitation to express their own vulnerability or anxiety.
Each of my coaching candidates alluded to the fact that displaying fear or admitting to struggling with work volume or pressures would most likely result in negative consequences such as being passed over for future projects or, worse still, perhaps being included in the next round of layoffs. And now more than ever before, there’s an expectation that “another round of layoffs” is on the cards.
As someone who has personally led some very large teams for global organisations including my own, what I found even more alarming were comments suggesting that even if they did admit to feeling stressed, anxious, or burnt out, that their concerns wouldn’t be taken seriously or addressed appropriately (if at all) or that perhaps they might be questioned about their commitment, dedication, or ability to handle challenges.
It’s no wonder nobody’s speaking up.
Why wouldn’t they simply put on a mask (despite their level of deep-seeded panic) and respond to questions around how they’re traveling with droid-like responses such as, “I’m fine”, “I’m good” or “I’m OK”?
As difficult as that must be, in their minds, it’s still the easier option.
To create a more open and supportive environment, leaders should actively work to build trust, encourage open communication, and demonstrate that they genuinely respect their team members’ concerns and challenges.
This will ensure that employees feel more comfortable expressing their fears without dreading negative consequences.
Before looking at high level initiatives such as cultural shifts or giving your team members access to resources such as employee assistance or counselling programs, first and foremost as a leader it’s essential that you can recognise the warning signs. Be aware of changes in behaviour, decreased productivity, or withdrawal from team discussions. If you notice these signals, have a private empathetic conversation. But remember to also listen out for what they are not saying, or what they might be wanting to say, but just can’t seem to get the words out.
Demonstrate compassion toward your team member’s struggles. Show that you genuinely care about their well-being by expressing understanding and offering support.
When employees trust that their concerns or struggles will be heard and respected, they are far more likely to open up.
In your regular check-ins with your individual team members, in addition to project status updates, revenue predictions, or other operational metrics, ensure that you allow sufficient time to discuss their well-being, workload challenges, or any other struggles they might be experiencing. Encourage open dialogue and create opportunities for employees to comfortably share their concerns but appreciate that building trust and genuine open communication takes time.
Now, if I noticed this pattern of high levels of fear, panic and suppressed anxiety over the last few months, you might be wondering why I waited so long to publish this piece.
With RUOK Day coming up tomorrow (September 14), we thought it would be a timely reminder for leaders to be more conscious of creating space to have meaningful conversations around how their team members are really feeling.
Your team members should be equally comfortable opening up and sharing their concerns with you (their leaders) as they are with a coach.
The theme for RUOK Day is “I’m here to hear” and is a reminder that every day is the day for a leader to ask, “are you OK?” and to start a meaningful conversation with a team member who might be struggling.
However, at the same time it shouldn’t necessarily even be about having to ask. It’s about leaders being able to notice, being more aware, and genuinely observing levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout around them.
Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, ideally helping them create an environment where employees feel more comfortable sharing their feelings and voicing their concerns.