The Power of Humility
The Power Humility
As a hospitality leader, there has been more than one occasion when I don’t see our business achieving a specific outcome, and I think: If only employee x would do y, we would get the result we want. And then I ask, why isn’t employee x doing it!? It’s easy to jump down the rabbit hole and analyze all the reasons why said employee is behaving the way they are. In reality, there’s a big chance that if I looked myself in the mirror, I would get the answer I’m looking for.
Many times, undesirable outcomes result from undesirable behaviors that stem from less than stellar leadership practices. This can stem from anything like poor communication, lack of setting expectations or systemic cultural problems in an organization. And most of these can be attributed to the leaders at the very top.
Ask any leader how strong their competencies are in any of these areas, and more than likely they will rate themselves better than someone looking from the outside in. For his book “The Future Leader”, Jacob Morgan surveyed hundreds of employees and leaders about different leadership mindsets and skills. For every one, leaders scored themselves as more proficient than their direct reports. This phenomena is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect by social scientists: “a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge.” Adam Grant talks about this in his book “Think Again”.
Feeling deflated? Don’t worry! We are all guilty of it. There’s an antidote for it as well – the metaphorical mirror, or in other words, humility.
Jacob Morgan defines humility as “the willingness to obtain accurate self-knowledge. Keeping an open mind and being willing to constantly learn and improve”. Humility is a powerful mindset and practice. First, it paves the way for all other leadership competencies. Humility is first the belief that we are all fallible human beings with the potential for improvement. It is a “modest self-portrayal”. Humility also includes self-awareness – the ability to look in-wards, self-reflect and accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses. Humility is so powerful that Jim Collins found in his research for “Good to Great” that it was the most important factor that separates truly great companies from all the rest.
So where do you begin to practice humility? Break out the mirror and ask yourselves these questions:
Start with asking yourself those questions and the sky is the limit for your own leadership growth and the organization for which you work.
(The following blog is based on the opening of a panel discussion I moderated at the Travel Unity Summit in Auburn, New York on December 7 and 8, 2022)
Learning starts early and doesn't stop
Recently, my 12 year old son came home one evening and shared his day at school. After a few minutes of recounting encounters with friends, games during gym and boring math classes, he became more serious. He played back an exchange in one of his classes when they were doing an assignment to describe a character in a book. A boy sitting next to him got in trouble for something that he had written on his paper. My son recalled that when the teacher walked by and noticed that the boy described the character as “colored” the teacher became agitated and in an angry tone told him what he had written was wrong and that he needed to change it. My son’s reaction was one of confusion and emotion, not understanding why his friend had “gotten in trouble”. After a long discussion with my son about the historical context around the word, I also thought, wow, this really is confusing.
I was also 12 years old when I first became aware of the deeper meaning of skin color. The language we use today didn’t even exist. We didn’t use words and phrases like anti-racism, bipoc, social justice, and global majority. I’ve noticed how much and how rapidly the vocabulary has changed just in the last 3 years, let alone 25. There’s no doubt that I have gotten it wrong and still do today.
Making mistakes leads to growth
Along the way I've had moments I’m not proud of. In 2018, in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders in which 11 congregants were tragically killed, I attended a vigil at our local synagogue that was open for the general public. Following the event, I was deeply moved but also confused and a bit angry. After talking to some others who had similar feelings, I wrote an anonymous letter to the synagogue leadership about how I felt about the proceedings. I expressed to them that I had experienced the vigil as polarizing and politicized. Two years later, when I was identified as the anonymous letter writer, I was persuaded to discuss the matter with the Rabbi and others involved. I realized through this process that how I reacted was a prime example of my white Christian privilege and that it was not about me, or how I experienced that event.
That moment was one of many defining moments on my DEI journey and very humbling. I always considered myself well versed on the issues. I spent my early years in high school and college studying civil rights and participating in campus race dialogues and went on to study abroad in South Africa to learn about Apartheid. But it wasn't until more recently that I realized that this work is just as much if not more about the inward learning and reflection than it is about the outward. I've struggled with my own questions of identity and how to use my voice as a business owner in the tourism and hospitality space on behalf of DEI. The last few years of reflection, training and dialogue on anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion have coincided with my development as a leader and a leadership coach. What I have learned more than anything, is that this work is fundamentally about leadership and how I show up as a leader.
A call to action
A few months ago the moment came when I was called to show up. I received an anonymous email through our hotel website contact form with the following message: "Hi, one of your employees, recently harassed and threatened a beloved member of the local transgender community who also happens to be a combat veteran. For proof see this link... Is this what your hotel stands for??? I’ll never consider staying here again unless action is taken to terminate this persons employment immediately . Everyone else in the lgbtq community is aware of this too and will not stay at your establishment until he is fired."
Receiving this message was deeply upsetting and uncomfortable. But I knew this was the moment that all my work had until now been leading up to. While I couldn't respond to the anonymous person who brought this to our attention, there was public post on instagram to which I could respond. I drafted a response in which we publicly acknowledge the harm done to this member of our community, denounced the act and also committed to addressing the situation internally. While the employee in question had been fired for other reasons already a month before the incident, we took it seriously as a moment to reflect and publicly decry acts of hate such as this one.
Lessons I've learned
There are so many lessons I've learned over the last few years.
Leading Digital Transformation
I’ve never really considered myself a Tech person. My strongest school subjects were in the social sciences. I participated in the sciences out of necessity and never enrolled in computer science. However, somewhere along the way, I realized that digital technology had a super-power and it was going to make my personal and professional life easier. Both at home and at work I’ve leaned into technology to professionalize processes and systems and ultimately to invest in a return on time and money.
In 2011, when we took over our family hotel business, we were using an outdated property management system, receiving online channel agency reservations by fax message and keying in credit cards one number at a time. We have spent the good of the last ten years upgrading all systems on our property to improve the employee experience, customer experience and our bottom line.
Implementing technology improvements has not been all fun and games. I found out relatively quickly that technology usage is harder for some than others, that not everyone can see the advantages and that adapting to change is a process. I’ve made some mistakes and learned that it takes leadership to establish a vision, address resistance to new systems and manage the change process.
Establish a vision
You may think that the new system you will introduce is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but the people around you may have no idea why. When doing so, it is critical to demonstrate 1) the positive outcomes that will result for team members 2) how it will impact customers and 3) how the company as a whole will benefit.
In her book, The Customer of the Future, Blake Morgan lays out the case for technology innovations and how necessary they are for the employee and customer experience. When employees don’t have the right tools and technology, engagement falls. The key to customer experience success is creating frictionless experiences and this is where technology either plays a role in creating or removing friction.
A couple of years before the pandemic we started taking reservations at our restaurant and bowling lounge. Every reservation had to be taken by phone and email and then payments for deposits and the actual reservation had to be entered into the system manually at an on-site physical location. We finally bit the bullet and started a process to implement an online reservation process on our website. In doing so we would decrease the time staff spent taking and entering reservations, allowing them to do other things. We would be improving the customer experience because they had more control over the process and could complete a reservation in less time. And finally, we would no doubt book more reservations and maximize our overall occupancy and therefore financial bottom line.
At my hotel we are currently considering whether to implement cashless tipping for the housekeeping department. We are introducing this idea because we think it will pay off for housekeepers and increase their tips. We also believe it will make it easier for guests to tip when they want to. I’ve brought the idea to our housekeeping team, but the response was luke warm…and I get it. There’s something about cash and knowing you can stick it in your pocket. You can touch and feel it. There is a security to it. Switching to cashless tipping brings an unfamiliar system and uncertainty around when and how you will actually receive your money.
The bottom line is that resistance comes from a deeper place of fear and those fears may not look the same for everyone. It is critical to uncover what they are for each person and address them by doing the research and answering questions. I have also found that it becomes a question of the tipping point: at what point does the opportunity of the change outweigh the “pain” or disadvantages of the status quo?
Managing the change process:
Managing the change process is for me the most challenging part. I am not a patient person and that impatience often threatens to blow the whole thing to smithereens. When we decided to move to a guest text messaging system which required a completely new software, I had been researching it for months, made a decision and I was ready the next day to execute. I ended up skipping over a bunch of steps and asked my team to roll out the usage of the new text messaging system on the Friday of a major peak ski weekend. Huge blunder….no surprise there. Here are the critical steps to take to ensure a smoother change process:
Technology innovations are critical to the success of any company to keep up with customer expectations and the competition. While it can be daunting, reflecting on your own mindset, that of your employees and engaging in the process above, it can be a lot easier to undertake.
Who isn’t attracted to the idea of achieving work life balance? Every where I turn there are articles like “10 steps to achieve work/life balance” or seminars that promise if you undertake certain methods or strategies all your work/life balance problems will be solved. What does it even mean?
For me, work/life balance has meant somehow giving equal attention to work priorities, family and my personal needs. To achieve this goal, I’ve tried everything. I’ve believed that if I adopted certain strategies especially around time management that I would get there. I’ve used to-do lists, blocked off time in my calendar, created special spreadsheets based on Stephen Covey’s 4 quadrants and set SMART Goals. Inevitably, I’ve aborted every single strategy because 1) they took up a lot of my valuable time and 2) they didn’t really move the needle. I mostly ended up right where I started: frustrated and hopeless.
It wasn’t until I became a leadership coach, which involved a lot of personal and professional development before I could coach others, did I understand why my goal of achieving work/life balance was so elusive. The problem is twofold. First, focusing on time management strategies only addresses the symptoms of bigger problems and not the root causes. For instance, I can have the best of intentions to block time off in my calendar for weekly exercise, but if I repeatedly override those blocks with meetings because I feel like I can’t say no, then there is a deeper mindset issue at play.
Second, focusing on specific outcomes like balance keeps us trapped in a specific definition or goal. If we don’t achieve that definition, then we just feel even more frustrated. Striving to achieve balance is a perfect example. Giving equal attention to all areas of our lives at all times is impossible. And each time we set that standard, we set ourselves up for failure.
Establish new beliefs
The solution is also twofold. Instead of focusing on specific strategies, address the underlying source of why you are not able to make the choices you want to. Usually, these are beliefs and mindsets that creating obstacles for those choices. Establish new beliefs and mindset shifts that will allow you to make the right choices. Here are a few beliefs that I’ve addressed in my life:
Let go of perfectionism and control
Perfectionism and control play a big role in my personal life. Breast-feeding my kids (or at least attempting), homemade baby food, homemade snacks to reduce plastic waste, perfectly balanced and healthy meals, making sure my kids are wearing matching clothes…yup all of it, I did (and sometimes still do). Perfectionism and maintaining control are HUGE time suckers. Slowly I’ve learned to challenge myself to let go of things that really don’t matter. A big win for me was that one night recently I was very tired and couldn’t bring myself to make dinner or even go to the store to find something easy. So I said, okay kids, go at it, you can eat whatever you want for dinner that you can make yourself…cereal, toaster waffles. And guess what…nobody died. Mind. Blown.
Set clear boundaries
Being accessible for my team at work has always been really important to me. Whether or not I’m on-site or off, my staff know they can knock, call, text or email and I’ll be available for them. But there are clear drawbacks to this mindset. I’ve found that if I’m not clear about boundaries, I’ll receive messages at all hours of the day or week and it prevents me from shutting off or focusing on my family. I’ve begun to shift this mindset and understand that I can still be seen as an accessible boss, without my staff having access 24/7. If I communicate when I’m available and when I’m not, team members can still get what they need without too much delay.
Give yourself permission
“I can’t possibly do that…” I can’t tell you how many times that phrase has gone through my head. I subconsciously tell myself that I’m not allowed to do certain things because what would other people think? Or because other people don’t do it that way. Or because people expect something different from me. A perfect example of this was how I design my work week. I was convinced that I had to work in specific places, at specific times etc. It took coming close to burnout after a hotel expansion project to give myself permission to do things differently. My life has drastically changed because of it and I believe my business not only hasn’t suffered, but has thrived.
Move towards a feeling
Second, instead of focusing on a specific outcome, establish how you want to feel. Focusing on how you want to feel, allows you to open up more doors and possibilities. Overtime I have found that what’s most important for me is that the time I spend on anything is about quality over quantity. I’ve let go of counting hours and put my time in where it is most meaningful. At work, this means being there for my team when we have staffing gaps. At home it means carving out time before and during dinner so that my kids can tell me about their day. I’ve discovered that more than anything, the way I want to feel is fulfilled and that I’ve made a meaningful contribution to the people that matter to me. The best part is that focusing on this feeling has residual effects. I make decisions easier, I’m present, I’m healthier and I’m downright a better mom and leader.
So what about those strategies and outcomes? Do they have no purpose? Strategies and outcomes are important, however, they are secondary rather than primary forces of change and improvements. They are supportive rather than causative. I have found that addressing limiting beliefs and knowing more generally how I want to feel have given me so much guidance in making choices, that I often need far less strategies and specific outcomes to get where I want to be in work and life.
Last week I read the Joblist Survey report with sincere interest. One of the biggest findings was that of the millions of people who quit their jobs as part of the on-going great resignation, at least one in four of those regrets doing so. The hospitality industry had a rate of 31% who regretted leaving their position! Read more about this report and how it relates to the hospitality industry and what actions we can take in my recent newsletter.
These results made me curious: how do you know when its time to leave your job? Scott Samuels, CEO of Horizon Hospitality, answers that very question in his article “When is it Time to Find Another Job?”.
In his article, Samuels identifies and expands upon four reasons for deciding to leave a job:
I couldn’t agree more with Samuels that the above are all good reasons for leaving a job. As a leadership coach and an owner of hospitality business, I was triggered to explore each of these reasons. Underlying all the reasons that people might leave their job and the reasons for regret that might follow, is the reality, that when you leave a job, you also take with you any unresolved issues or patterns of behavior with you. As a result, you can end up being equally unhappy in the new position. If you are unsatisfied with your job for any of the above reasons, consider the beliefs and behaviors below before making any big moves.
Evaluate your sense of self-worth (Compensation)
There’s no doubt that an employer should regularly be reviewing salaries and wages, reward good performance and offer financial growth opportunities. On the other hand, professionals also should take self- responsibility, be their own advocate and ask for what they want and need. Have you resisted asking for a better compensation package because you have low self-confidence or sense of self-worth?
Reflect on your behaviors (Toxic work environment)
Addressing a toxic work environment is one of the most difficult work culture issues for employers to address. Often it takes years to identify the circumstances or employees who are contributing to it and it may not be fully realized until the person has left. While employers have a significant responsibility to find and weed out the causes of the toxic environment, have you considered that your behavior might contribute? Toxic behavior is caused by a myriad of circumstances such as not being able to self-reflect, having un-met needs, being a perfectionist or always playing the victim, damaging relationships or giving in to destructive behavior.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset (Your growth has stalled)
Its easy to point fingers and determine that you have not been given opportunities to grow in your company. However, what else might be stopping you from that growth? Having a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset is one of the biggest reasons people cannot get to the next step in their career. They are either unwilling or unable to see that they are capable of learning new things and that experiencing failures along the way does not mean you are a failure.
Set Clear Boundaries (There's no end to burnout)
Burnout and the contribution of poor working environments to it, is a real thing. If companies are not addressing systemic issues that contribute to burnout, then it might be time to say goodbye. On the other hand, have you been clear about your boundaries? Do you always say yes to overtime? Have you communicated to your boss what you are willing and not willing to take on? If not, what is the underlying reason you have not been able to set boundaries?
The truest sign of a leader is the deliberate effort to clear your own path to achieve your peak potential. If you are exploring your next career move, whether or not it means leaving a job or staying, be sure that you are also turning your inquiry and reflection inward. You'll be happier in an existing job and if you do decided to leave, you'll be more successful and satisfied with your new position.
The #1 Goal of Communication
Communication has got to be one of the most emphasized and underdeveloped work and leadership skills. How many times have I heard or said, “you need to communicate better”? If its so important, why do we struggle to get it right?
Mid-way through my career, communicating effectively as a leader, is a skill I work on daily. I spend a lot of effort un-learning what I thought good communication to be usually through trial and lots of errors. I’ve written emails that I thought were perfectly fine but received angry responses in return. I’ve had conversations with employees and the employee quit by the end of it. I’ve posted things social media that didn’t sit well with our audience.
By definition, communication is simply the exchange of information between individuals. Effective communication, however, is a much more complicated phenomena and fraught with land mines where it can blow up in your face. In my experience, communication has gone wrong for me because I believed that the goal was to impart information to another person and make sure they understand what ever that information may be. When in fact, there is really just one goal, for every kind of communication: to build trust.
Who are you most likely to take advice from? – A friend you trust. What advertisements convince you to buy a product or service? – Those that come from a company or brand you trust. When do you best receive feedback in your work? – When it comes from a manager you trust.
Effective communication starts with a genuine mindset shift that when we are exchanging information, we are also open and genuinely receiving what is coming from the other. When the other person, or your target audience believes in our authenticity, trust begins to form. There are practices that support this trust building.
“What got you here, won’t get you there”…
I’ve learned that lesson many times over the years, especially as a business owner. Typically here’s how it goes. I set a goal or an expectation to achieve more and I hit a brick wall. Effort and my existing set of resources, knowledge and experiences are no longer helpful in getting me to where I need to be. This is the moment that I start thinking about where I’m going to get those things so I can move forward.
In 2019, my husband and I came to such a moment. We knew we had come to a cross-roads with our restaurant and attractions business. We felt that we lacked foundational knowledge and some skill sets to run that part of our business more professionally and to produce better results. To address this, we brought in a restaurant consulting firm. They conducted an assessment, shared their expertise and systems and provided insight on where we could go move forward. It was a big investment but it paid off not just in our confidence levels but also bottom line results.
Learning has been a value of mine since as far back as I can remember. Even though it didn’t always come naturally, I found it rewarding to come to a point where I knew something that I didn’t know before. In these early years traditional education was my main source of new knowledge and trigger to change my performance. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to a wide variety of opportunities to learn in different formats. From this process I also discovered that not all forms of knowledge and resources have the same kind of impact and different formats are better for some things than others.
It wasn’t until more recently, however, that I uncovered the reason why some formats are better at different times than others. In their book “Leading Beyond change: a Practical Guide to Evolving Business Agility”, the authors provide the context to answer this question. What they describe is that different learning approaches can fall into three categories 1) Knowing, 2) Practices, Techniques and Skills, and 3) Being. As you employ different approaches the impact they have on your evolution increases.
Its not always easy to know what approach to apply for which situation and when. In the story above we were missing key pieces of knowledge. Neither my husband nor I had any formal training in restaurant management or the culinary arts. We also didn’t have the time to do a lot of self-study. This is why we brought in the consulting firm. They had the knowledge we needed, they had nailed repeatable processes from their many years of experience, and we could get that knowledge relatively quickly from them. The approach with this consultant also included some skill building. They didn’t just hand us a report and call it a day. There was an on-going exchange and interaction in which we discussed our weaknesses and they helped us formulate methods to improve upon them.
After about five or six years of running our hotel and attractions business, I found that knowledge and skill building, including a two year hospitality certificate with Cornell, was starting to reach its limit in terms of what it could do to improve my performance. Patterns became apparent related to my behavior, the consequences of my behavior with others, interpersonal relations, confidence, ability to make decisions, job satisfaction and my general professional and personal well-being. These patterns of behaviors were beginning to become serious obstacles to high performance. All of that just described, are examples of the “being” referred to above. For this, I needed a different approach.
To “be” a different person, I doubled down on my reading about personal and organizational development. The turning point came when I engaged with a coach. The journey has continued with efforts including creating a leadership retreat for women in travel, developing a meditation practice and finally, becoming a coach myself.
The impact of my focus on the “being” vs. the doing, has been profound. I’ve developed a different mindset which enables me to address almost any challenge with a new sense of confidence and stability, even if I don’t have the immediate knowledge or skills needed to address it.
In a nutshell, it was for me like having all the best components and parts for a car (knowledge and skills) but the car still kept stalling out. Once I cleaned up the engine and made it run better (being) I could really put the pedal to the metal and accelerate.
I’ve put together some examples of learning and development approaches that fall under the three categories as described above 1) Knowing, 2) Practices, techniques and skills, 3) Being. This resource list is far from exhaustive and its not always black and white what sources of learning might fall in which category. Some sources may fall into more than one category and impact people differently. Get access to the resource list here and feel free to reach out anytime with questions around this topic or to learn more about coaching with PEAK.
Operating a business with a third of your staff and record-breaking revenue will teach you a few things about yourself. The return of travel is a welcome change, but the labor shortage conditions are like a new kind of pandemic. What there isn’t a shortage of is opportunities for growth and discovery in the face of these extreme challenges.
Scarcity eats perfectionism for breakfast
If there was a perfectionist fan club, I would be the first member. It shows up everywhere in my life. I struggle with letting my kids leave for school with un-matching clothes. I clean my house before the cleaner comes. If I start a terrible book and realize its terrible by page 5, I will painstakingly continue to finish all 500 pages because I just can’t abort.
At work, my perfectionist tendencies have me ping ponging across the hotel lining up lawn chairs in a perfect row, scrubbing carpet stains and shifting my path so I can greet and chat with hotel guest. On face value, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these things, and I’ve always felt that my perfectionism helps drive my achievements. However, this trait, can also be a crippling handicap.
I’ve learned a lot about perfectionism through many of Brené Brown’s books. Her research has revealed the roots of perfectionism in our negative self-image, shame and self-blame: “It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because “I’m not good enough”. For me, not being able to provide the perfect experience for my guests because we have limited operational human resources, becomes very personal and identity defining. I feel responsible for not delivering on our promised experience.
Here's the thing: perfectionism is soul sucking and a wasteful use of time and resources. With the current labor shortage time and resources are fundamentally scarce. I have had no choice but to change my mindset to what Brené Brown calls “healthy striving”. What this looks like: today we did our best. Tomorrow we will try again. I am not defined by the weeds growing in the garden. It’s good enough.
Serve me up some humble pie
Business owners, general managers and directors are being called away from the corner office to serve on the front lines all over the country. In our business I went from helping one day a week in housekeeping this past winter to four days a week at the peak of this summer. The physical labor of housekeeping presents a stark contrast with the mental and intellectual pursuits of marketing, business development and strategy. Its hard not to feel sometimes like I’m being taken away from the “important” work sitting on my computer. But what if the “important” work at this moment, is taking out the trash? What if doing laundry is exactly where I’m supposed to be?
The benefits of working on the line are not new lessons for me. I wrote about them when labor shortages started becoming a problem already four years ago. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/when-employees-hard-come-roll-up-your-sleeves-rachel-vandenberg/. What is new for me is the idea that one set of tasks is not necessarily more “important” than others. I’ve become increasingly humble about the work that really drives performance on any given day. This humility has also been closely linked with increased empathy and understanding of what the day to day is like for our staff.
“Feed your faith and your fears will starve to death” - unknown
I could hear it in his voice. He was frustrated and short with me the moment I saw him when I came into work. Oh boy, I had a feeling what the source of the problem was and all I could think was that I didn’t want to have this conversation, because there was nothing I could offer him as a solution.
A deluge of words and emotions spilled out: I’m overwhelmed, I’m tired, I don’t know how we are going to fill all the shifts. We just had two more people quit. Not a single person is applying for our open positions…
This is where I often go into hyper problem-solving mode. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to just be able to wave a magic wand and take away the frustration. I wanted to have the solutions at my finger tips. But I didn’t have anything.
I brought this experience to my coach. Some very important shifts happened for me in that conversation. The first was the insight around what drives me to go into hyper problem-solving mode: FEAR. What happens if I don’t have the solutions? Will the person leave? Will the situation get even worse? Was I letting him down? Would he be okay in terms of his mental and physical health if I didn’t solve the problem? What I learned was that leading from fear creates disempowerment. The exact opposite of what I intended. What my staff member really needed in that moment was someone to listen. What they needed was my faith in them that they were strong enough to handle it and find their own solutions.
As far as the current labor crisis goes, there are no easy answers but hospitality and travel leaders have already demonstrated how resilient they are through the pandemic. We’ve got this.
Just because she’s famous, doesn’t mean that the hazards of her chosen occupation won’t wear her down. Tennis player Naomi Osaka’s refusal to speak to the media after her French Open tournament match and her subsequent withdrawal is keeping the topic of mental health on the agenda – not just for famous people, but for the working world in general.
You can bet that every organization has a Naomi Osaka. But how many leaders really feel comfortable with just how to address mental health issues in the workplace?
What happens when a mental health issue arises and threatens the ability of the professional to fulfill their duties and subsequently the working relationship? Who is responsible for addressing it? How do leaders balance the obligation to get results while at the same time fostering a culture that addresses mental health of employees responsibly?
When my husband and I took over my family’s hotel business, I had no idea about the amount of time would be spent leading and managing our staff (not to mention ourselves). It turned out that the work of a leader is far heavier on the psychological aspects of the job (vs. strategic and operational) than you could ever imagine. The reality is that we all spend a lot of time at work and that the personal and professional are much more blurred than we may want to admit. It really should come as no surprise then, that when it comes to mental health, there’s no sweeping it under the rug. Over the year’s, I’ve been confronted with both the mental health of my staff as well as myself. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I’ll venture to guess that many leaders out there still think that mental health issues are personal and should be left out of the workplace. I thought that too. Come to find out, the personal is always professional. People show up to work as human beings, not robots. There is no switch to turn off what might be affecting them, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with work. This does not mean that leaders should jump on every bad day of one of their staff. Sometimes its just that – a bad day. But when patterns begin to develop, a leader may need to take action. Ignoring the signs of a potential mental health issue with an employee will only prolong and potentially escalate the impact at work. Sometimes simply acknowledging that you see that a staff member is struggling and that you are there for support is enough. It may make them aware for the first time that what is happening with them on the inside, is now showing on the outside and that they need to take their own steps to address it.
Know the limits of your expertise
Mental health issues can be caused by a myriad of both personal and professional circumstances. They can also manifest themselves differently. Some people might react by calling out of work, missing deadlines or demonstrate a signs of a declining attitude. Other’s might respond to mental health issues by working more and becoming so intertwined with their job that they lack a healthy separation between the personal and professional. Whatever the cause and the result is, its not our role to judge or draw conclusions, especially if we have no experience of our own. No one is a better expert about their mental health challenges, than the person feeling it.
It is not our job as leaders to diagnose or to treat serious mental health issues. This is tricky, because in my experience, its not always clear in the first instance what you may be dealing with. A few years back I learned first-hand with two employees that separating performance issues from mental health issues is extremely difficult. In both situations I spent hours and hours for almost 3 years supporting and coaching these employees to address what I thought were work performance issues that I could influence. Nothing worked and no matter how hard I tried, the same problems came back again and again. If an employee demonstrates repeated patterns of behavior that don’t improve with performance feedback and you sense that the behavior is linked to past unresolved experiences and/or trauma, it may be time to open up a conversation about getting professional help.
Reflect on your role
What happens if an employee expresses that their mental health challenge is directly related to their work environment? If that’s the case, your role as a leader is to take that seriously and to evaluate what factors around their job could be changed. Is there a culture of overwork? Is feedback constantly negative? Are employees punished for mistakes? Is the employee experiencing micro-aggressions or discrimination and nothing is being done about it? Does the employee have a verbally abusive boss? Are you the problem? Acknowledging your own possible role as a leader is one of the hardest things you will do, but you and your organization will only be better for it. Take a step back, invest in organization and leadership development, hire a coach.
Give space to heal
In a work environment that values and models psychological safety, employees are given space to be human and show up as a whole person. If an employee is addressing a mental health issue and recovering, giving that employee some time and flexibility to support their recovery process can go a long way. In my organization we have had multiple experiences with losing loved ones to untimely death. These experiences can have a significant impact on mental health. In this process I have found that tailoring the professional response as an organization to the individual needs of each employee has been successful. I check-in with the employee regularly, foster an environment of open communication and ask how I can help.
Addressing mental health issues at work, comes with boundaries on both the part of the employee and the organization. An employee has the right to their privacy and can refuse any support offered by their leadership or prefer to not communicate about it. On the other side, a leader and an organization has the right to draw the line when un-resolved mental health issues continue to impact bottom line results. As a last result, either side may conclude that the job is no longer the right fit for the circumstances.
Strengthen your own mental health
Leaders face a barrage of challenges every day of all kinds. Constantly being in a state of reaction and problem- solving mode can take a heavy toll on your own mental health. As a leader of a growing company I was not prepared for the amount of mental health issues of employees that would come across my path. The impact on me has swayed from deeply emotional to the other end of the spectrum where I experience a state of dissociation where I feel almost no emotion at all. Neither extreme is healthy and I have found that when I’m operating in those extremes that I need to look inward at my own mental health and engage in strategies to re-cooperate such as taking time off, exercising, sleeping more or engaging with outside professional support.
Reactions from leaders in the tennis industry to Osaka’s continue to play out this week and most likely reflect the kind of varied leadership personas that exist in most organizations.
The punisher - The USTA fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping the press conference.
The ally – The CALM app donated the equivalent amount of Osaka’s fine, $15,000, to a mental health organization.
The emotionally intelligent boss – NIKE expressed support for Osaka and applauded her for opening up about her mental health challenges.
I’m excited to go to work today and talk about mental health – said no leader ever. However, whether or not you want to, mental health in the workplace is a topic that every leader will be confronted with especially as more companies re-open and expand their workforces post pandemic. The question is, what kind of leader do you want to be when it happens?
Taking a chance on myself
Do you remember the 1996 romantic comedy Jerry McGuire? Its hard to believe I was just 16 when that movie came out. In it, Jerry (Tom Cruise) has an emotional breakdown after a series of injuries puts one of his clients back into the hospital. In the middle of the night he writes a “mission statement” about what he thinks his work as a sports agent should be all about and prints it out for 150 colleagues to read. For all of its biased representations of women and Black characters for which we could do without, the underlying story of the loss of purpose and meaning is just as relevant today as it was back then.
When Jerry distributes his mission statement he takes a leap of faith, and a risky one at that. But, would anyone follow him?
In a recent practice coaching session of mine, a colleague made an important discovery about her own struggles with taking leaps of faith – like presenting ideas in a group or launching her new venture. In discussing her struggles, something familiar washed over me. Oh yeah, I know that feeling all too well. I put my personal experience aside and we continued the conversation.
Towards the end of her session she took a deep breath. I asked her what the deep breath was all about. She said:
“If I’m going to ask others to take a chance on me, I need to take a chance on myself”. Later in the day as I was rolling this around in my head as it sunk deeper into how much I could relate. It dawned on me:
The difference between preparing for success and being successful is taking a chance on yourself.
A year ago, almost to the day, I started training to become a leadership coach. I too, have been fearful of taking a leap of faith. I’ve mentioned my new profession to a few people. I’ve hidden it in a piece of writing here in there. I’ve even added my company to my linked in profile and to my title. But, secretly…I was kind of hoping no one would notice, that no one would click on my website. I kept telling myself I wasn’t ready.
I’m not experienced enough. I haven’t graduated from my training. I haven’t received my certification. I haven’t ______, _______, and _______.
Ready: what does it mean to be ready? Will I be ready this coming Tuesday? Will I be ready when I finish that project? Will I be ready when its spring? Will I be ready when my website is “finished”? Will I be ready when someone gives me permission?
The truth is, I’ve been preparing for this for at least 20 years! Maybe even my whole life. It started with my long held values. I’ve always been someone seeking to contribute and connect with people, in whatever job I held. I’ve been reading and studying organizational development for 20 years – soaking up as much as I could about business, psychology, social science and leadership. I have a Master’s degree, and don’t forget about the last 10 years I’ve spent putting everything into practice in my own business – with success, failure and everything in between. I have a management certificate in hospitality and I’m just one test away from graduating from my coach training. I have also sat on a couple of boards as well and founded a leadership retreat for women in travel. How much more prepared could I be?
So what is holding me back? Hmm.
I haven’t given myself permission…to take a chance on myself.
I despise these kinds of tasks including tiny details, numbers and a fair share of estimation (because I like round numbers, perfect squares, neatly folded piles…you get the picture). At 10am that morning, I put down my clip board half way through what I was doing and walked straight home, directly to my room and pulled the covers over my head. And I slept. For the next several days, willing myself out of bed took everything I had.
My own crisis of purpose is what lead to that moment. I also wasn’t taking good care of myself. I was feeling disconnected from the meaning of my work. Everything was about budgets and putting out fires. I felt like I was swimming in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket or land in view.
I knew something needed to change. Slowly the feeling of drowning began to subside especially as I started taking care of my physical health. Then I started tackling my struggles one by one. I hired a coach for a short period. I started reading a ton more and watching tv much less. I addressed my deficiencies in knowledge with online learning certificate program. I arranged and asked for more help with child care and my kids started becoming more independent as they entered elementary school. Ultimately, I regained a feeling of purpose in my work and found a way through deliberately designing the shape of my career and personal life to create a more harmonious relationship between the two.
Looking back, I wish I had engaged with a coach for longer. It would have made a world of difference with my confidence and made the process much faster. Instead, I muddled a long mostly by myself. But then, surely by no coincidence, coaching came back to me.
In the beginning I knew I wanted to bring these leaders together, but I hadn’t nailed down what would differentiate this event from others. Then someone introduced me to a corporate coach in my area. At the same time we also distributed a survey asking women leaders in hospitality what challenges they were facing. It all came together, what we all needed was professional development support.
Creating Accelerate Women Leaders in Travel was the final inspiration I needed to realize that in addition to my hospitality career, I wanted to become a coach. I didn’t know it 20 years ago, but everything I did and experienced in those 20 years lead to this moment.
Jerry McGuire’s relationship with his one and only client Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) shines a light on the power of the coaching relationship. Coaching is about partnership and the coach learns as much as the coachee in the process. In one of the final scenes of Jerry McGuire, Jerry and Rod have an intense conversation about the things they are struggling with. Throughout the movie Jerry shows that he is driven by heart and passion in his professional life. But in his personal life, its all about practicality. Rod on the other hand, is all heart and passion in his relationship with his wife Marcee (played by Regina King), but in his professional football career he wants Jerry to “Show me the Money!”.
In the final scenes when Rod Tidwell makes a miraculous touch down catch and in the celebratory aftermath, both Jerry and Rod, having influenced each other, make a connection with what was missing in the other part of their lives.
Who will follow me on this journey? Jerry showed, that it took only one client with heart and passion to make all the difference.
Rachel Vandenberg is a leadership coach living in Stowe, Vermont with her husband and three children. Rachel also owns and operates a hotel and attractions property with her family. She sits on the board of the local tourism association and also created a leadership retreat for women leaders in travel.