>>Jake is well-known as an energetic leader, with strong command presence. Since he’s been working from home for the past month, he’s been abrupt and short-tempered with his direct reports and colleagues, alike.

>>A solid, detail-oriented technical leader, Paula seems distracted and nervous on a recent conference call. She’s been late for a few key meetings and her email responses have been delayed, which is unusual for her.

>>Dr. Collins exits the operating room, dressed in her Personal Protective Equipment. Just as she’s crossing paths with Dr. James, another provider. Dr. Collins takes a deep breath – as deep as her N95 mask will allow, anyway. As she exhales, Dr. Collins bursts into tears. Dr. James shakes her head and admonishes as she walks past, “You’d better put those tears on the shelf.”

From the outside, looking in, it would be expected that you’d make some judgments about Jake, Paula, and Dr. Collins.
You’ve probably quickly gathered, as the title of the article suggests, that some people might think that they’re not handling things very well.
I’ll circle back to our colleagues later in this article, but before you go too far in trying to figure out what’s the problem, let’s start here:

In late March, I did a deep dive training with a team of leaders at Fortune 500 company on understanding and coping with the emotions – such as fear, worry, anxiety, panic – that accompany the uncertainty and disruption that leaders are encountering in 2020.

During the training, a C-level leader asks: “How do you deal with it when you see another leader who’s struggling with the disruption, stress, and uncertainty?” 

Take note: If this issue of dealing with other leaders’ emotional health and wellbeing hasn’t come up in your organization just yet, I guarantee that, among the leaders, it’s a conversation bubbling under the surface, brewing behind the scenes.  

Let me clarify: by “struggling,” I mean situations where a leader cries, loses their cool, or when emotions like anxiety, frustration, anger, panic, or fear break through and affect one’s perceived ability to lead effectively.

Here are 7 steps for handling it when you see another colleague struggling with their emotions in a way that you think is affecting their ability to lead well:

1. Before you do anything else, stop and take stock.
Recall a recent time in your own life when you said or did something that you regret – like yelled at your kid, or cried out of frustration, or spoke harshly to a report – and, in hindsight, wish you would have done differently.

Ask yourself: How would I have wanted a colleague to approach me?
Ask yourself: What are the words or actions that would have helped me bounce back quickly?

Keep in mind: if you tend to be the thick-skinned, cool-headed type, most people – even most leaders – are going to be more sensitive to emotions and stress than you are.
Now isn’t the time for harsh criticism or formal reprimands.
Opt for kindness over sternness, empathy over cold logic even if it’s outside of your typical protocol.
You’ll build bridges and cultivate trust for the future. 

2. Suspend judgment. Take a mindful, non-judgmental approach to your approach. Leaders respond to stress and uncertainty in different ways.
For example, one person in leadership might be the stereotypical, calm voice of reason during stressful experiences, while another might typically experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, frustration.

Under most circumstances, they’re both capable of regulating their emotions effectively.

However, the additional stressors of:
>>working from home while homeschooling your child(ren), 
>>leading a team remotely, 
>>the pressure of other people looking to them as a source of reassurance and confidence
>>making fast, high-stakes decisions with limited information and time
>>all the while worrying about protecting one’s self and family from an invisible, potentially deadly enemy (covid19)

The additional stressors alone are enough to strain the intellectual and emotional reserves of even the best performers. And that’s the perfect storm for emotional bleed-throughs.

In my executive coaching practice, I’m seeing that even the most stalwart leaders are experiencing an increase of emotional reactivity and sensitivity to stress.
They’re waking up with pounding hearts and sweaty palms, mystified about the reason why.

3. Assume that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that you’re probably not aware of. 

To illustrate step 3, let’s return to Jake, Paula, and Dr. Collins.

What you don’t know about Jake: He’s a single parent, been working from home with 3 school-aged children.
His parents, who typically help him with the day-to-day household tasks, were visiting relatives in mainland China earlier this year.
Now that air travel is shuttered, he’s on his own with his kids; and worried about his family who are still in China. 

What you don’t know about Paula: her college-age daughter has been on a Semester-at-Sea. As a mom, she’s been worried sick, and has had to coordinate her daughter’s return home from overseas. Not only that, she’s got three other children who are home schooling, one with special needs.

What you don’t know about Dr. Collins: She’s just finished her first surgery on a patient with symptoms of COVID.
She had to operate in full PPE for the first time, with a skeleton staff. There were complications and she had to make difficult decisions under extraordinary stress.
By the time she ran into Dr. James, Dr. Collins had dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s for the case.
She’d held her human emotions at bay until everything was complete.
Dr. Collins knows herself well enough to understand that her tears were simply a release of emotion – not an emotional meltdown – after which she was able to re-focus and move on to the next hard case.

4. Replace judgement or criticism with curiosity and compassion.

Check your underlying assumptions about how you believe a leader is “supposed” to behave during stressful times. For instance, if your unconscious bias is toward stoic, unemotional leadership under pressure, you may tend to criticise or judge another’s emotional responses as “wrong” or “problematic”.

Once you’ve identified your own biases, it should be easier to choose to consciously adopt an attitude of curiosity and compassion.

5. Take a solution-focused approach when you check on your colleague.
Avoid talking about them behind their backs. Instead, simply reach out and ask direct, kind questions. You’ll want to nurture your human connection and get permission to share what you’ve noticed.

As an example, you can ask questions like: “Do you have a few minutes?”
Then say, “During our meeting yesterday, I noticed that you seemed distracted and not quite your usual self.”
Then you can say,
>>I’m guessing there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
>>How are you doing?
>>How can I help?
>>What would make things better right now?

6. Advice-giving and problem-solving are not required. Now’s not the time to admonish anyone to “buck up, camper” or “put those emotions on the shelf”. Rather than trying to give advice or solve your colleague’s problem, this is an opportunity to stay present and listen deeply to your colleague’s experience.

Simply reflecting the emotions that you could imagine they’re having is enough. Say things from your heart, like:
>>”That sounds frustrating.”
>>”Oh! Some people might be feeling really worried right now.”
>>”That sounds so stressful. How can I help?”

7. Focus on their strengths (as you see them). Once you and your colleague have had a chance to connect on the behind-the-scenes concerns, remind them of the strengths you’ve seen in them.

For example, you can say something like, “One thing I appreciate about you is your resilience. I know you’re going to bounce back quickly.”

A final note: Every situation deserves its own, unique consideration. The examples of conversation starters I’ve provided are simply ideas to guide your thinking as you make your own decisions about the best approach to addressing this difficult issue.

In fact, the way you’ll address an emotionally intelligent leader is different from how you’ll approach someone who doesn’t have as much access to or awareness of their emotions.

My greatest encouragement to you is to make friends with your own emotions.

The more comfortable you are with your feelings, the more flexible and responsive you’ll be able to be with the range of emotions that other people – your colleagues, direct reports, and family members – are experiencing as they navigate these unprecedented times.

Now over to you:
How have you handled it when you’ve noticed a colleague who’s struggling with the unusual demands the leaders of today are facing?

What’s gone well?

What do you wish you would have done differently?

If you’ve been struggling with your own stress and anxiety, as well as those you’re leading, what have you found helpful to clear your emotions?


  • Dr. Robyn McKay

    Psychologist + Executive Coach for High EQ Leaders

    sheology by dr. robyn mckay, llc

    I help high EQ leaders in tech & healthcare rise above uncertainty + lead from their mission, vision, and purpose.

    About Robyn McKay, PhD

    Robyn McKay, PhD is an award-winning psychologist who provides executive leadership coaching, advising, and training to Fortune 100 companies, including Nike, Honeywell, Intel, and Caterpillar; as well as innovative organizations in healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry.

    Emotionally intelligent physicians, engineers, and other top performers providing leadership and expertise during the unprecedented times we're living in are working with Dr. McKay to support the own mental and emotional resilience of themselves and their teams so they can rise to today's challenges, and be poised to meet tomorrow's.

    Dr. McKay’s perspective on the pandemic of 2020

    While nothing we’ve experienced has truly prepared us for the uncharted waters we’re currently navigating, Dr. McKay believes that, as innovative and creative humans, we have been uniquely wired for the challenge.

    Right now, she is committed to helping innovative leaders and organizations quickly adjust to the dynamic climate, encourage resilience and instill hope the world's most valuable resource – our people –, and to capitalize on unexpected opportunities to innovate and lead, like never before.

    Dr. McKay holds a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Kansas. She is a licensed psychologist in Arizona. All of Dr. McKay’s trainings are based in the science of positive psychology, including topics such as mindfulness practices, resilience, restoring hope, mindful communication, values, strengths, purpose-driven leadership, and innovation. Dr. McKay is experienced at guiding people through difficult times; she has counseled and supported people affected by the terror attacks on 9/11/01, the myriad of school shootings, and the financial crisis of 2008, not to mention thousands of people with seemingly ordinary problems who seek restoration of their most vital asset of all: hope. Learn more about Dr. McKay right here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robynmckay1/