How to Manage Through Emotional Exhaustion

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By Kerry L. O’Grady

Last year was difficult for all of us in academe, and the start of the new year has proved challenging as well. Mental health and wellness are important components of workplace happiness and success, and those of us in management and leadership positions in higher education are not talking about that as much as we should. We’re not talking enough about emotional exhaustion — defined by the Mayo Clinic as “when stress begins to accumulate from negative or challenging events in life that just keep coming.”

Let me begin by saying I am grateful to be employed. Beyond grateful. I am sure many of you feel similarly. However, being grateful does not mean you are OK. You can be both grateful and in a bad place. Every day, as you take calls, log into Zoom meetings, and write documents, you may be working through your own emotional exhaustion — and so are people working alongside you. You are going to falter. People on your team will falter.

Working and leading through turbulent times makes it nearly impossible to put your best professional foot forward, Monday through Friday. Sure, the work still needs to be done. You still need to hold teams accountable, ask for updates, and resolve problems. But if 2020 taught leaders anything, it’s that our campuses won’t succeed in the long term if we do not take care of the people we manage.

Leading through emotional exhaustion is not easy. It requires sophisticated soft skills. It means learning how to motivate your team, raise morale, and demonstrate empathy. It requires you, as a manager, to put aside your own feelings and focus on other people’s needs. That can be difficult with a large team — especially if you are stressed and emotionally exhausted, too. And, honestly, taking on the energy of others is taxing (even more so if you are an unemotional person).

All of which is why I recently began practicing some unconventional leadership skills, aimed at balancing employee needs with my own. I share the most successful tips here, in the hope that they will inspire you to lead differently, too.

Say yes to crying. Crying is not a sign of weakness. In fact, crying is a strength. Biologically, it is a physical demonstration that someone is affected by a person, place, or thing (positively or negatively). It is just as healthy as swearing, working out, eye-rolling, or meditating. It is just a different release.

Crying at work does not indicate someone is unprofessional or fragile. It demonstrates the simple fact that something someone said or did — or something in one’s personal life — yielded a specific reaction. If crying is not hindering productivity and is not routinely happening in meetings or in class, I say let your employees cry. And make them comfortable doing so.

Admittedly, I am a crier. I am an emotional person. Does that annoy unemotional people? Sure. Does being emotional have its downsides? Absolutely. Some days, I wish I could just turn it off like a faucet. But emotional is how I do life, and the way I manage is no exception. Here are some things I do to ensure my team knows tears are welcome:

  • I make my (virtual) office a true safe space for emotional release. I am proud that students, faculty members, and other colleagues know they can put time on my calendar to “cry it out” with zero questions or judgment. Sometimes I give advice to the crier. Sometimes we have difficult conversations. Sometimes I say nothing at all. It depends on what the person needs. Regardless, my office is a well-known cry zone.
  • I do my fair share of crying. And I am lucky enough to have close colleagues and friends who allow me to feel secure in releasing my emotions.

Sometimes leaders forget that a crying employee does not necessarily mean a sad one. Crying can be a sign of embarrassment, frustration, or happiness. Take me, for example. If I am crying at work, you can be 99 percent sure it is because I am incredibly frustrated and cannot find the right words to express myself. I work on this constantly, but that does not prevent it from happening on occasion. I mention this because it is important for us, as leaders, to try to understand the “why” behind an emotional reaction, instead of assuming people are fragile, unprofessional, or “incapable” of handling their emotions.

Crying can quickly evoke feelings of shame and loneliness in the crier, especially if it is ignored or assumed the person will “get over it.” Leaders who witness an emotional outburst should at least take the initiative to do a wellness check on that person. A simple inquiry may be all that is needed to turn a tough moment into a lasting work relationship. Here are some questions to ask a crying employee:

  • “What’s wrong? Do you want to talk about it?”
  • “I see this conversation is upsetting you. Can I ask why?”
  • “I value working with you, and it’s hurting me to see you like this. How can I help?”
  • “Hey, that meeting (or conversation) was difficult, and you were clearly upset. I want to understand why you reacted that way.”

But what if the crying is too frequent? What if it’s unrelated to work but is affecting an employee’s productivity? Sometimes permission to take a (temporary) break and deal with the emotion is the best gift you can give. But if an inability to manage emotions is causing a series of work-related problems (missed deadlines, complaints, making others uncomfortable, etc.), it’s your responsibility to tactfully confront the situation.

For the unemotional leaders and noncriers in the room: What if you are truly uncomfortable with crying at work? And really do feel as if it is inappropriate?

How you feel is not wrong, and you are entitled to your opinion. I would, however, offer this unsolicited consideration: If you oversee people, how can you do your job effectively if you cannot respect the way others process information? You do not have to like it, or do it yourself, but it’s your responsibility to manage the people in your department or office as individual pieces of a puzzle. They have different needs that require personalized management, or they will never be able to come together as one cohesive unit.

Focus on milestones, not moments. Most of us work eight or more hours a day. The other hours are spent with both mundane and heavy life stuff that we do not talk about at work. As much as we try not to bring our personal lives to work, sometimes we cannot help it. Emotions just appear, and usually at the worst possible times. These moments can present themselves as a rude comment, an “oh crap” mistake, or a moment of pure regret and embarrassment. We have all been there. Maybe in 2020-21, it’s happened more often than we would like.

As my dad always says, human beings are unpredictable. Thus, when someone reacts poorly or makes an uncharacteristic mistake, it is important to take a moment to look at the whole picture. Think to yourself:

  • Is this person an asset to the team?
  • Could this be just an unfortunate moment in time? Or is this consistent behavior?
  • Is there any way I am responsible for this person’s reaction? Could I have delivered this information better?
  • Do I need to deal with this formally?

Remember: A few bad days do not represent someone’s overall ability or personality. A few meetings where the tone of someone’s comments is off does not make that a habitual problem. A few mistakes or absent-minded errors do not make someone a screw-up.

Yet as leaders, we often spend more time offering negative feedback — harping on mistakes — than celebrating all the things employees do right. And, sadly, that is understandable in difficult times, when we may focus on the negative because we are under pressure to “fix” things and we perceive our lives as negative. We may be more apt to nitpick or be hard on our employees because it makes us feel better. Or we become laser-focused on protecting our own jobs or reputation. The truth hurts. I know.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting managers ignore repeated mistakes or avoid reprimanding employees if it is deserved.

What I am suggesting: We are in different times, and we need to think about why something is important to bring up now, and how we deliver the message. We all need fewer accusations, less defensiveness, and more listening. We need to avoid going into a conversation angry. We need to respect how others process information or events. Finally, we need to put empathy at the forefront of every conversation. Here are some ways to approach a conflict:

  • “We need to discuss what happened, and it may be difficult, but I want you to know this incident does not reflect the person you are, and it’s not going to define you.”
  • “I want to address the situation, but first, I’d like you to tell me your side and how you’re feeling. It may help me better understand where you’re coming from.”
  • “We both understand the situation could have been handled better, and we need to discuss strategies to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future. But first, I want to take a few minutes to understand why you reacted that way.”
  • “OK, I respect that you don’t want to talk about this right now. Why don’t you take some time to reflect upon what happened, and we can talk later this week? It’s important to me that we discuss this, but I understand you may need a little time to digest.”

A mishandled conversation between manager and employee can do a lot of damage, both immediate and in the long term. Once these feelings take hold, you risk someone’s becoming despondent, unmotivated, disengaged. In short, the employee becomes a product of the perceived negative environment. No leader can lose valuable employees right now. They are too expensive to replace.

Practice inclusive leadership. That term gets misconstrued all the time. Yes, it’s about living and breathing diversity, equity, and inclusion. But it’s also about more than that. Inclusive leaders are those who are people-oriented, understanding, and passionate, and are more socially savvy than procedure heavy. They inspire change, take the time to understand the jobs of those they manage, and are committed to the team’s emotional well-being. They are ride-or-die for their employees, and put the needs of others before their own. They actively listen more than talk, and ponder more than react.

In managing people, that means taking the time to check on how they are doing, not just what they’re doing. For example, I don’t micromanage my faculty’s day-to-day teaching (barring some specific reason to do so). But I do like to get into the weeds now and then, to ensure not only that team members are delivering on excellence, but also that they are happy.

Of course, at times, I need to make difficult decisions and choices that leave employees downright unhappy. But, over all, I know my team is happy because I informally measure it. You read that correctly: I measure workplace happiness. Their engagement, body language, and participation provide me with important insights into team morale, potential burnout, and motivation to succeed.

While I am not an expert on workplace satisfaction, I have read enough to understand that happiness is feeling or showing contentment. At work, people exude happiness in a variety of ways. They do great work consistently, are flexible with change, are open to learning new things, and are forthcoming with information. They smile and are animated during meetings. They ask questions and feel comfortable raising concerns. They attend events and meetings, just to connect. They regularly ask for help, advice, or both.

If any or all of those traits are displayed, I can confidently surmise that employees are “happy” doing their job. Also it means they are conducive to my leadership style, which is a key variable in any employee-happiness equation. When I started in my current role, I asked for a one-on-one meeting with every instructor. With a large roster, that took months. And it was worth it. It was important to me to understand all instructors’ personalities, what made them tick, and their strengths and weaknesses. On the flip side, I wanted to share my leadership style and expectations for the faculty. This exchange is inclusive leadership in practice.

Like it or not, being liked as a manager matters. The more people like and respect you as a leader, the better the health and happiness of the employee and the organization. After the pandemic, inclusive leaders will be more employable than revenue-driven or process-oriented ones.

I know my leadership style is not for everyone. I hide nothing. I talk about life with faculty members and students. I am open about anxiety, pain, and stress. We celebrate wins together. We follow one another on social media and connect outside of work hours. The point is: Being relatable and approachable as a human being, however you choose to do so, makes you a more respected and effective leader. Now is the time to show your heart, not just your head.

Kerry L. O’Grady is faculty director and associate professor of practice at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. She is on Twitter @OGradyKL.

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