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5 Ways Modern Leaders Can Cope with Unrealistic Expectations

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The world needs compassionate and empathetic leaders now more than ever to help deliver an economy that looks after people and the planet. But we are in danger of being stuck with hard-nosed leaders who don’t care about or listen to any criticism.

According to a Monkey Puzzle leadership survey, the day-to-day challenges leaders face have barely changed over the past decade; the major challenges are around managing time and dealing with difficult behaviour. What has changed are the demands on business leaders. 

Not only are they expected to provide strategic thinking and make business decisions, but modern leaders are also being held responsible for employees’ mental health and well-being, psychological safety, as well as diversity and inclusion. Business leaders are also now expected to embody a wide range of (often contradictory) personality traits. They are expected to be decisive yet flexible, empathetic yet analytical, and clear yet nuanced. It is an ever-growing list of expectations that is exhausting and unrealistic for any single person.

Unrealistic expectations 

Most of the leaders surveyed cared very much about their teams and employees. They really wanted to do the best they could but felt, at times, trapped by potential conflicts. The more leaders care, the more they are hurt by the constant critique and judgement. Many felt that they cannot do right no matter what, resulting in them evaluating whether they are right for the role.

Unfortunately, if these caring leaders leave their professions, those that remain will be the hard-nosed, thick-skinned, disconnected leaders that don’t care about the critics. It seems that the wave of employee activism may leave them with the one thing they can all agree they don’t want: cold, uncaring leaders.

With all these stressful and impossible expectations, it’s no wonder that many leaders are exploring different (less stressful) career options. But we need good leaders now more than ever. So, what needs to change to encourage good leadership? And what can leaders do to make it easier? Here are five steps to follow:

Don’t give up. Armour up!

As a caring, empathetic leader, it can be hard not to take criticism to heart. It’s important, therefore, to find ways to disconnect and develop resilience to criticism. Disconnecting doesn’t mean you don’t care, just as resilience to criticism doesn’t mean you stop taking feedback. It does, however, mean creating a layer of armour around yourself so that you don’t take it all so personally. 

Armour can be particularly useful for feedback. Create a sort of ‘spongey wall’ that absorbs critical feedback without penetrating your core. Using a mentor or other third party can help – they can filter the feedback, picking out key themes you might want to act on, while limiting the unhelpful noise. You can also mentally prepare yourself with armour for conversations that are likely to be difficult and/or critical.

Armour also means boundaries. While it can be difficult to express clear boundaries sometimes, setting them for yourself can be a helpful reminder to switch off and recover. Set end times when you will switch off your phone and laptop so you aren’t always available. Try to limit the number of evenings you work late as well. This will help maintain some energy and work-life balance.

Develop strong emotional regulation 

Becoming triggered by all the emotional chaos around you is exhausting. An unexpected result of the coronavirus lockdown is that everyone became a little less emotionally regulated – partly due to the stress of being confined indoors, partly because it is easier to emotionally regulate in the safety and relative solitude of your own home.

Unfortunately, when others are emotional, your emotional dysregulations will suck you in, causing a cycle of upset. The employee is upset, you become upset, they are upset at your reaction and get more upset, and so on.

It can be useful to consider what psychologists call the Drama Triangle. In the triangle, there are victims, rescuers and persecutors. Victims need a persecutor to blame and a rescuer to save them. Being cast as the persecutor can feel unfair and unwarranted, leading them to become the victims in their own triangle. Being cast as the rescuer can feel rewarding at first but, really, it is an unending task since the victim stays steadfast in their role as victim.

Instead of getting sucked into any of these roles, it is important for leaders to remain grounded. That way, you can listen and empathise without feeling the need to agree or disagree, rescue or persecute. 

One way of remaining grounded and emotionally regulated is to surround yourself with other well-regulated people, perhaps as part of a peer support group where issues can be discussed without lots of emotion.

It also helps to be well-organised. Keep in mind that most people like clarity and hate surprises – doubly so for neurodivergent people. Publishing an agenda for every meeting, however small, can help people to prepare mentally and emotionally. Similarly, having an appointed facilitator can help provide clarity and direction to meetings.

If you need to cancel, leave or rearrange a meeting, be sure to take an extra moment to explain why. People will really appreciate the clarity and it will stop them from taking it personally and becoming dysregulated themselves.

Be clear about what kind of leader you are

We all have “superpowers” – the things only we can do. By identifying these strengths, we can lean into them, spending time cultivating those skills that we are uniquely good at. If your strengths don’t fit the organisation, perhaps it actually isn’t the right role for you. If they do fit, you can make yourself part of the fabric of the business.

As well as identifying your strengths, it can be very useful to find your ‘why’. Why do you do this work? Why is it meaningful to you? Once you know the reason and meaning behind your own motivations, it becomes easier to focus on them and develop the right skills for meaningful work.

By setting the right development goals – those that feel meaningful and relevant – you will become the type of leader you want to be. For everything else that you are less good at, find someone else who can help plug the gaps. You can’t be an expert at everything, so why are wasting time and energy trying?

Develop your peer support

Leadership can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Cultivating a group of supportive peers and/or mentors to go to for help processing difficult events can provide essential moral support. 

Peer support groups can be particularly important and effective in larger organisations, where structures tend to be more hierarchical. By creating a cohort of leaders on a similar level, you can share and discuss challenges openly without fear of conflicting agendas or power dynamics. 

In smaller organisations, or for very senior leaders, developing a mentor relationship can be a useful approach. It is important that you can trust your mentor so that you can speak openly and share your concerns freely. It can also help if the mentor has some pre-existing knowledge of your industry so that the conversation and advice are relevant.

Learn how to facilitate difficult and sensitive conversations

Dealing with difficult people and behaviour is a key part of being a leader yet is one aspect that many leaders find hard, especially those who are more sensitive and empathetic.

Many people think that they can avoid conflict by avoiding difficult conversations, but this only causes issues to remain hidden and fester. It’s like trying to avoid a serious infection by refusing to see a doctor. Difficult conversations are essential in understanding the expectations and challenges of employees. 

If you can create armour for yourself, establish clear boundaries, develop your emotional regulation, and have peer support, these conversations will become much easier.

However, this does not come naturally for most people and requires practice. Start small and build up as your skills improve. You can practise your listening skills with peers, mentors and third-party trainers before going into a ‘live’ situation. And there will always be an opportunity to practise in live situations through your work.

There are lots of books and resources that can help, from our practical guide Real Leaders to Adam Grant’s brilliant book Think Again which challenges our fundamental notions on how to shift perceptions and have productive, challenging conversations.

Remember: you don’t need to do everything that is asked of you, but you do need to engage. That means listening, understanding and asking questions. Showing that you are genuinely interested and concerned goes a long way to resolving conflict.

How ever you decide to approach leadership, remember that it is possible to be a kind, caring leader without burning out.

Karen Meager is co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training, a leadership development and organisational design consultancy.


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