Avoiding Emotional Pain in the Workplace

Leaders must become more self-aware and avoid inflicting emotional pain on their followers.

In the 1932 classic sci-fi horror film Island of Lost Souls, Dr. Moreau threatens his hybrid-human creations with torturing them in his “house of pain” if they don’t follow his orders. Although modern leaders don’t typically threaten their followers with physical torture, inflicting emotional pain on followers is not unheard of. 

Surprisingly, leaders who inflict emotional pain on their followers may not even be aware of it. Over their lifetimes they have developed certain attitudes, behaviors and habits that cause untold pain to their followers.

Furthermore, a leader’s action, whether positive or negative, has a multiplier effect in how it affects followers. A colleague’s put-down may temporarily upset me, but the same words coming from my boss cut much deeper. 

Moreover, leaders’ negative actions have a greater effect in their followers than positive actions. A leader’s positive words and actions will result in the followers’ incremental gain in trust toward that leader. However, a leader’s negative attitudes, behaviors and habits typically result in a substantial reduction in trust, sometimes instantly.

By doing several positive things, a leader will build up goodwill with her followers over time but the same leader only needs to display one sufficiently inappropriate behavior to lose all trust from her followers. Just think of those leaders who have lost their credibility, in fact ruined their whole careers, because of one inappropriate comment.

There is a wide range of appropriate leadership attitudes, behaviors and habits that build up trust with followers but there are others that cause grave emotional pain to the followers and are thus antithetical to trustworthy leadership. 

Some actions are obviously inappropriate such as sexual harassment. Others are more subtle and many times escape the notice of even the most self-aware leaders. Good leaders do not display negative attitudes, behaviors and habits consciously. Often they have blind spots and may need help uncovering and unlearning those habits.

After more than 15 years in leadership during which I have undoubtedly inflicted some emotional pain, I have learned to regularly practice introspection and reflection on my daily interactions with employees. This is an effective technique for leaders to determine if their words and actions are inflicting emotional pain. 

If a leader is losing followers (employees) she needs to know what she is doing wrong so she can stop the bleeding. Low morale, disengaged employees and rampant attrition are very detrimental to an organization’s success. Ultimately, it’s the leader’s responsibility to prevent it.

Michael Folkray is developing the next generation of world-changing leaders. After a decade in private industry, he chose to dedicate the rest of his career to public service, spending the first 7 years of his government career with the United States Department of Justice. Since 2003, Michael has served in various leadership positions within the United States Department of Homeland Security. He is the founder and leader of a leadership book club for his office’s management team. Michael earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a graduate of the Federal Executive Institute. You can read his posts here and follow him on the following platforms: LinkedInTwitterInstagram.

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