5 ways to beat unrealistic expectations to produce good leadership

Group of female colleagues working together in office, female leadership

By Karen Meager, Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy

These days being a leader can be exhausting. Modern leadership includes being responsible for employees’ mental health and wellbeing, psychological safety, as well as diversity and inclusion.

They are expected to be decisive yet flexible, empathetic yet analytical, and clear yet nuanced.

Good leaders care about their teams and employees. But the more they care, the more they are hurt by the constant critique and judgement. Many feel that they cannot do right no matter what. If these caring leaders become disillusioned and leave, those that remain will be hard-nosed, thick-skinned, disconnected leaders – hardly ideal. We need good leaders now more than ever.

So, what can be done to ensure we get the good leaders we all want? Here are five things all leaders should develop:

  1. 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. A colleague 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.

It also helps to be well-organised. Keep in mind that most people like clarity and hate surprises. 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, take an extra moment to explain why. People will appreciate the clarity and it will stop them from taking it personally.

  1. Clarity about leader type

Identify your strengths, and lean into them, cultivating skills that you are uniquely good at.

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. And you can’t be good at everything; find people to help plug those gaps.

  1. 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.

  1. Mastery of the difficult conversation

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. Difficult conversations are essential in understanding the expectations and challenges of those in your team.

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.

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.

  1. Resilience

It’s important to find ways to develop resilience to criticism. This 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 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 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.

Karen MeagerAbout the author

Karen Meager is co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy, a leadership development and organisational design consultancy and co-author of Real Leaders: a practical guide to the essential qualities of effective leadership. Monkey Puzzle works with business leaders to help align teams, support innovation, build sustainable organisations and develop exceptional people who are better able to achieve results – giving leaders more time to do what they do best.

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