How can you protect your own well-being as a manager?
A common but rarely discussed challenge of being a manager is that multiple layers of stress can build up, resulting in an emotional crisis.
Imagine this: During a 1:1, one of your engineers comes to you with a conflict they have with another engineer. In the next meeting, another report asks why they’re not being considered for a promotion in the upcoming cycle. Right after that, another member of the team needs your help because they are struggling with work due to the pandemic.
As a manager, you’re also in charge of the delivery of several important projects. You then learn that there is a new high visibility, cross-organization initiative that your team needs to deliver by the end of next quarter, and to help achieve that goal, you must start hiring. Not only are you bombarded with all of these requests, you’re also trying to balance the stressors within your own personal life.
This may sound familiar, because you’re experiencing it now or experienced it recently. If you’re feeling anxious imagining that, it makes sense. It is a lot to handle. It’s safe to say that most, if not all, leaders experience cumulative stress that extends beyond a typical work/life balance struggle.
The curse of servant leadership
When Robert Greenleaf coined the term 'servant leadership’ in the 1970s, he defined it as: ‘The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first.’ If we take that definition at face value, we will generally strive to go above and beyond the call of duty to take care of others.
Earlier in my management career, the impostor syndrome kicked in full force. I wanted to prove that I was an excellent servant leader. I removed blockers, managed processes for the sake of efficiency and productivity, and thought about my reports’ career progressions. I created space for them to share their highs and lows – often shouldering a heavier emotional burden than was asked of me. This caused me to feel mentally exhausted and physically unhealthy, all for the sake of being a model servant leader.
I now know that caring for others without a proportional focus on my own well-being is not sustainable. Here are some insights that have helped me in my journey to be a healthier and more productive leader.
During your daily interactions with your team, I am confident that you usually notice when something feels a bit off with your direct reports. They might appear more distant or confrontational or, in some cases, they might tell you that there is something bothering them. When that happens, you check in with them to see what you can do to support them.
So as a manager, you know how to intuitively examine the mental state of others, but can you examine yourself the same way? How often do you check in with yourself? Do you recognize when you’re starting to feel mentally fatigued? Do you know where your limit is? Take a step back and introspect on the recurring patterns of your past seasons of burnout. What keeps coming to the surface in these periods of your life?
It all boils down to this question, ‘How well do you know yourself?’
Self-awareness is the foundation upon which you build more tools to manage your mental health. Take the questions you’d ask a report and try to answer them yourself on a regular basis, and answer honestly.
The Palladium Rule
We all know The Golden Rule that tells us to ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’ While it has the right intention, because of how different and complex human beings can be, you can’t assume that others want to be treated the way you want to be treated.
You may also have heard of The Platinum Rule, which says ‘Treat others the way they want to be treated.’ Through your interactions with your direct reports, you should have a pretty good idea of who they are as human beings and can adapt the way you give kindness and compassion to each of them.
I’d like to propose a new rule called The Palladium Rule as the next evolution: “Treat yourself the way you want to be treated.’ Just applying the previous two rules alone may lead to worse outcomes for yourself and your team in the long term. Start thinking of yourself as someone you are also managing and serving, especially when you begin to feel overwhelmed and burdened. If you are showing kindness and compassion to others when they need it, be kind and have self-compassion for yourself when you need it too.
Search for joy in the midst of your day
The most common response to hitting your mental limit is that you feel exhausted. And you feel like all you want to do is to get some rest.
In one of his posts, Adam Grant says: ‘In unhealthy cultures, people see rest as taking your foot off the gas pedal. You don’t stop until you’ve pushed yourself to the brink of exhaustion. In healthy cultures, people see rest as a vital source of fuel. You take regular breaks to maintain energy and avoid burnout’.
Let’s take the time to rest and also go one step further.
An often overlooked medicine to burnout and overwhelm is the experience of joy. Think of the bed-ridden grandpa in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The utter joy of the golden ticket had him hopping out of bed to go on an adventure with his grandson. That kind of excitement for life and purpose is rocket fuel.
When was the last time you felt deep and immense joy? What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you? Is there an easy-to-do activity that brings you joy in your life? Keep it as simple as possible and build more joyful moments into your daily routine. Experiences of joy, possibly even more than rest, could give you the sustainable energy to care for yourself and others.
For me, the bite-sized joy I integrate into my day looks something like a lunch date with my partner, a walk to pick my kids up from school, and a short 15-minute meditation in the middle of the day.
Protect your energy
Start treating your energy as a precious resource and then, with that in mind, practice more intention in deciding how you use it. When we don’t spend our energy with intention, it can very easily lead to exhaustion, the feeling of overwhelm, and eventually burnout.
Here are some questions you should consider asking yourself and the other person in a conversation: What are they looking for from you? Are they wanting to vent, are they looking to be coached, or is this conversation something that requires a lot more immediate hands-on attention?
Based on the information that you receive, you can then decide how to prioritize your energy.
Talk to a therapist
The last but the most important suggestion I can give is to find yourself a therapist. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to wait until you are in crisis mode before seeking professional guidance.
Through working on issues in my personal life with my therapist, I have gained many insights that increase my effectiveness as a leader. Among other things, I learned how to manage my emotions and anxiety, and how to have empathy and compassion for myself and others.
Therapy helped uncover and examine blind spots, which has made me a better human and leader. It has given me tools I didn’t know I needed.
Reimaging servant leadership
Here’s my invitation to all of us: Let’s reimagine what it means to be a model servant leader. Let’s start by including ourselves as someone we also serve and manage.
Gauging exactly how much is on your plate can be challenging when some of your work, the mental and emotional workload, is intangible. It is imperative to factor in the mental and emotional workload you carry on top of day-to-day operational tasks, because your mental health and available energy impacts your ability to do your best work. How much support you can offer your direct reports is in direct correlation with your ability to know and take good care of your own needs.
During a recent 1:1 with a peer manager, he told me, ‘As a leader, our most important stakeholder is ourselves. When we suffer, everyone else suffers. And when we flourish, everyone else flourishes.’ I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. You cannot give from an empty cup, and it is our responsibility as leaders to take care of ourselves first so we can do our best for others.