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  • Writer's picturesnsavella

Manager as... Therapist?

Updated: Feb 8

HBR dedicated their entire Sept-Oct 2023 issue to the "ever-expanding" job of the manager: Leading the Anxious Workforce.

The issue spotlights Helping an Employee in Distress. To me, this highlights the ever growing presence that mental health has in the workplace, and the responsibility that managers and leaders have in addressing it.

In fact, I've had to have more complex conversations with clients and my own team about their mental and physical health recently. Moreover, I've seen first hand that my clients in leadership roles struggle with how to build this capability. They are faced with how they can find a way to support their team members in all aspects of their health while still putting accountability at the forefront.

In these conversations, we've spent time focusing on three critical questions: Where is the stress coming from or why is it happening, How is it showing up and impacting the work, and What can we do about it?

I want to emphasize that the role of a leader or manager at all times is twofold: (1) Demonstrate care and concern for the wellbeing of your team, and (2) Make sure that the work is getting done. Both of these are equally as important. We have to remember that we're not mental health experts, but we can navigate these conversations with compassion, openness, and directness.

Step 1: Understand the "why"

This step is the trickiest and the one that requires the most nuance. It is a fine line to walk when trying to understand where someone's anxiety or struggle is coming from, especially when you are their direct manager. My great friend and colleague, Carrie Skowronski, shares that this starts with empathy. According to Brené Brown, perspective-taking, avoiding judgment, and recognizing others' emotions allow you to develop more understanding for a person's situation than jumping right to problem solving.

I've had to get comfortable being uncomfortable in these conversations with my own colleagues and clients. If approaching these conversations feels intimidating or something you're not necessarily excited about, start with a simple "I notice that you're showing up differently lately. I'm wondering if something is going on for you. Can you tell me about it?" Getting curious and listening reflectively will give you insight into what someone is experiencing. This arms you with information to eventually start solutioning.

Step 2: Determine the impact(s)

A manager's role is to create psychological safety on their team. Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. Teams with higher levels of psychological safety not only have positive business outcomes, but they have the foundation for more valuable conversations around mental health.

When I teach these frameworks to managers, they often ask "What happens if the work doesn't get done? I have a hard time giving feedback to someone that I know is struggling." Amy Edmondson, a leader in work around psychological safety makes it clear: psychological safety does not mean lowering standards, anything goes, or giving up on accountability. This model says it best - we need our teams in the learning zone, where psychological safety and accountability are high.

If your team member is able to still get the work done, excellent. It's a good feeling of control for them and leads to results for the team and business. If they're not, a high sense of psychological safety makes understanding the why (step 1), leading with empathy, and crafting a plan forward (step 3) that much easier.

Step 3: Craft a plan

You've had the conversation to learn what's going on, you've shared that expectations still need to be met, so then what? First, learning some valuable tools around supporting your employees' mental health and knowing when to seek out an expert (like HR) can be extremely helpful.

Second, involvement = commitment. Setting out options for what happens next - rearranging the workload, providing more time to deliver, or potentially working with HR to offer a leave of absence - is your role as the manager. Then, you can work with your employee to determine what's best for them. Involving them in the plan while still making sure you're marshalling the work forward is critical.

I've created a template you can use to help you plan for these conversations. I hope it's helpful as you navigate this important role as a leader.

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