It’s time for professional kindness
13 October 2021
We are now at a point where COVID-19 has pushed many people to beyond their limit. And this is a time when negative and ‘bad’ behaviour can easily burst out and escalate quickly. Our normal buffers and self-monitoring systems are worn out.
Showing care, containment, empathy and optimism for the future – is something we can do that can help. While bad behaviour and outbursts are not OK, they happen in high pressure situations when everyone’s resources are depleted. So part of our leadership work is to contain and manage these situations.
One leadership skill helpful for this is to practise psychological containment – it’s the workplace equivalent of giving a screaming toddler a big bear hug. It is like pressing pause, enacting a circuit breaker, and acting in a way that decreases the chance of the behaviour or situation escalating. Escalation is so easy in stressed environments – it’s easy to yell back at someone, easy to ‘reply all’ to an email and react in-kind, or perhaps to shut down yourself and not reach out to someone who is also suffering. Containment is the opposite of this – it’s acknowledging the difficulty and moving through it together to get back on track, back to the core work of patient care and self-care.
Psychological containment behaviours
Showing empathy in these moments helps. An empathic response shows you have registered your team member’s emotions – the anger, sadness, grief and loss. Showing genuine compassion for how they say they are feeling helps them to move out of the emotion itself.
Provide some confidence and optimism for the future, despite the current hardship. This is not to say be unrealistic or idealistic, but it is an acknowledgement that having a positive frame of mind helps people be proactive, creative and innovative in challenging times.
What is so difficult now is that we can’t actually do many other things to address the problems in a concrete way – there is little room to suggest taking time off, little possibility to change or clarify roles and responsibilities. It is a time for getting through. This underlines the importance of being kind. Professional kindness – showing care, containment, empathy and optimism for the future – is something we can do.
How can I do this when I feel so stressed myself?
It is highly likely that you don’t have much bandwidth or energy yourself for this kind of leadership work; the work of leadership in this space is to acknowledge that you can only do your best, and your best is good enough. Showing you care about someone as a person is a leadership act for this time.
A helpful response doesn’t have to be a big response. Reaching out to a person directly, perhaps by a quick text message or telephone call can be very effective. A smile, a thank you for small things that work out, or a simple acknowledgement to colleagues that this is so hard, and it will pass can also help. It’s worth telling ourselves this too.
Dr Anna Clark PhD
Leadership consultant & coach
- The psychology behind crisis leadership. By Gianpiero Petriglieri, HBR, 2020.
- Psychological containment: A critical leadership success factor. By Maltz and Freeman, July 2020. (this article references learnings from leaders impacted by the September 11 Disaster in New York 2001).
You can find these articles here on the Leadership Coaching resources page.
The leadership coaching service aims to provide members with a space to talk about the leadership challenges they face at work and develop further knowledge, skills and behaviours to address these effectively. There are different formats available – consults of 1 or 2 sessions to provide support for working through specific issues and challenges, and longer programs of 4, 6 or 8 consecutive sessions for deeper dives into leadership skill building and action plans to support ongoing development. Visit the leadership coaching section here to find out more.