Leadership challenges us to anticipate what is happening in the hearts and minds of our people. This is particularly difficult when working with strong, self-directed human beings. Strong performers are self-critical by nature and when the going gets tough, the tough get going usually starting with beating up on themselves. Leaders can help by staying connected, and offering compassion.
I experienced this first hand, when I was the one struggling. I was the leader of a large retail sales team, and it was one of those big days with high expectations. I had started at 4am and was driving from store to store to rally and inspire the team. Each hour, the sales totals would flash on my phone via text message. They were disappointing. I felt more stressed with each incoming tone. And then the phone rang. It was my boss. “Oh great,” I thought. “He is freaking out too.”
“Where are you?” He said.
“I’ve been to 8 stores, headed South for more. Everyone is working really hard ” I wanted him to know I was “on it.”
“Please pull over now,” he said firmly.
And then continued, “Stop it.”
“Stop what?” Not the response I had expected.
“Look in the mirror. See that look on your face? Stop beating yourself up. I know that you planned well, the team is prepared, everyone is fully customer-focused, and you are executing on all cylinders, Aren’t you?”
Uhhh, “yes,” I said, still surprised by his reaction.
“The only mistake I see happening is the one you are about to make when you go into that next store. No matter what you say to the team, they are going to see that look of disappointment on your face. It is going to crush them because they care about pleasing you.
Powerful coaching. He was absolutely right He knew me. He knew my team That is exactly what was about to happen.
That was the best coaching he ever gave me.
I experienced this from the other side of the coaching fence as well. I was talking to a seasoned member of my HR team. She was really upset at how a project had turned. Then she sighed, “and on top of that I am being yelled at.”
I was startled. I had been making every effort to stay calm and offer support (even though I was really frustrated).
“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you, I know this was an honest oversight.”
“Oh, it’s not YOU who is yelling at me, it’s ME yelling at ME, and that’s far worse.”
Sometimes the best we can give our teams is empathetic connection.