Originally published in the WBE Canada Magazine; Issue 6. Read our full magazine HERE.
By: Carolyn Stern
President & CEO, EI Experience
We are living in transformational times, where everything is changing so rapidly. It’s hard to keep up, stay motivated and be the leader everyone needs us to be. We, ourselves, may be struggling.
Airline crews always preach to passengers that if there is an emergency on board, we need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first before helping others. Leadership is no different, especially during stressful times. Taking care of others can quickly deplete the caregiver. Leaders need to replenish their energy to be effective which is where, early in the pandemic, I struggled.
As the President and CEO of EI Experience – an executive leadership development and emotional intelligence training firm – I pride myself on having a lot of empathy. When you are high in empathy, you pay attention to and appreciate the feelings of others. Empathy has always served me well in my line of work. I actively listen, understand, and appreciate what others need, which helps me build trust and allows me to have more honest conversations and deeper connections.
But having high EI levels isn’t always a strength. There is a dark side to emotional intelligence. If your emotional intelligence tendencies in areas are overplayed and stack up in ways countering your other predispositions, a strength can quickly become a liability.
Have you ever thought about what your strengths look like when overused? What impact do these exaggerated strengths have on others?
Having too much empathy means you may not set clear boundaries. You can get entangled in other people’s issues, carry others’ emotional burdens on your shoulders, and often put others’ needs before your own.
At the beginning of COVID-19, emotions were running amuck for my staff. My high empathy was firing off on all cylinders as most of my team struggled with all of the uncertainty. I felt compelled to help them through this time of immense change.
Ironically, I have a healthy level of empathy when it comes to my clients. All-day long, I listen to my clients’ emotional problems at work and can stay self-differentiated. I care about how they feel but also coach them to have confidence in themselves and help them determine their own solutions to their work challenges.
However, my well-balanced empathy went out the window when dealing with my staff, and was replaced with an urge to take care of them, like a mama bear protecting her cubs.
But quickly, I had to learn that just because their emotions were at an all-time high, it was not my responsibility to carry the load. It took a little practice to identify where my empathy sweet spot was and make the needed adjustments, but I was able to re-establish and set better boundaries.
So, I started to notice and release the emotions in my body when someone on my team was sharing. I still held the space for that person to express themselves in a safe environment and was compassionate, but I taught myself not to take on their emotions.
I stopped trying to solve everyone’s emotional challenges but started having coaching conversations with my staff. Telling them what to do was sending the wrong message – as if they couldn’t solve things on their own. This kind of leadership approach creates a dependence culture and does not empower your team to make solid decisions autonomously. I needed to relearn that I could simultaneously have compassion, empathy, and boundaries.
If I could tell every business leader who is struggling to get the results they want one thing, it would be this: Don’t try to be the problem-solving hero. Inquire more than advocate your ideas. Ask thought-provoking questions versus telling your staff what to do.
As the work world continues to transform, a great leader must teach their employees to be stronger than their issues and inspire them to have confidence in and rely upon themselves to find the solutions to manage their feelings. In doing so, you are not only putting the oxygen mask on yourself but teaching others where and how to find their own mask.
Carolyn Stern, President and CEO of EI Experience, is a university professor, corporate trainer, certified Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Development Expert, author and professional speaker. Passionate about the importance of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and team building in the workplace, Carolyn helped pioneer the evolution of emotional intelligence as a leadership superpower to help professionals get unstuck, maximize potential and achieve more. Her engaging, results-based approach will motivate and inspire participants to apply the power of emotional intelligence to their own leadership, transforming the organization and unlocking unlimited opportunities in your business.