Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
A colleague from a large metro office recently reached out asking how to help one of their leaders who is an empathic listener but struggling to keep fuel in her own tank. He wrote:
“Do you have any guidance on how to train supervisors on how to deal with their colleagues’ issues? Employees see their supervisor as a confidant, and will often confess things beyond normal work issues, like marital strife, substance use problems, etc. My colleague feels ill-equipped to provide them with the correct resources, and is struggling to deal with the stress that comes as a result of learning such sensitive information. These disclosures are taking a toll. What resources are out there?”
It can be challenging for supervisors — especially those still cutting their management teeth — to keep from getting pulled into the bog. We want to encourage supervisors to be empathic listeners, but to do so in a way that doesn’t degrade their own wellbeing.
Also, from an organizational perspective, it is important to maintain professional boundaries to preserve objectivity in managing the employee as well as avoiding the appearance of favoritism.
Staying out of the bog
Being a supervisor is hard work. In addition to maintaining expertise in the field and managing a crew, we are also expected to teach resiliency skills and demonstrate mastery of resiliency skills and self-control. Even on good days, it is a big ask.
The “Seat of Resilience” has three independent yet interconnected prongs: Regulation (stress management), Connection (peer support) and Purpose (our motivating why). To build and maintain their own resilience, supervisors should take regular inventory of their own levels in each category. Here are some tips.
Regulation. Get grounded with your own resiliency practice — meditation, running, prayer, etc. — before you even get to work. Anticipate personnel challenges (if possible) and potential solutions. When you feel your pulse start to increase tempo, exercise your regulation muscle by doing box breathing. Take an inventory of where you harbor your stress in your body and have a body-based plan to decompress, like walking, climbing some stairs, or even a deep sigh. Establish rituals to allow your brain to shift gears between work and home. You will have more success and authenticity if you master these skills before you try to teach them to others.
Our brains respond positively when we establish a connection through conversation. We want to model critical peer support for our staff. Resonant listening allows you to see and hear the person — along with their challenge — without stepping into their shoes or wearing their pain. Mirroring another’s expression of pain, while maintaining appropriate boundaries, is beneficial to both, without depleting the resources of the supervisor.
According to Forbes Council Member, Deena Von Yokes, you can be kind and constructive and maintain important boundaries at the same time. In Four Tips To Set Healthy Boss-Employee Boundaries, she explains,
“Boundaries are important in business. Everybody wants to be liked, but if you end up only being the “cool boss,” employees might not respect you and could take advantage of your kindness. Before you know it, you could see more resentment and gossip on your team, all because you wanted to be a friend instead of a leader.”
Von Yokes suggests, among other things, that supervisors be very clear about expectations and boundaries from the start and to always be friendly, but professional.
One example looks like,
“I am honored that you feel comfortable enough with me to share this, but I am not sure, as your supervisor, that I am the best person to hold your story. I am going to suggest that you speak with _______.”
In addition to offering connective support to those we supervise, don’t forget the importance of peer-to-peer support amongst managers. Sometimes we need to converse with those who face similar challenges, like managing difficult employees or refereeing conflict between staff members. We need other managers to normalize our internal dissonance resulting from management challenges.
When to refer outside
Obviously, there are many situations with require outside referrals, such as emerging concerns about another’s mental health, substance use, safety at home, or competence. It is good to prepare a go-to list of community resources ready in advance.
Additionally, supervisors should be clear at the beginning of a sensitive conversation that the relationship with employees is generally not a confidential relationship and that the manager may need to make referrals.
Training and resources
For more information on training your trainers, check in with your elected/appointed, HR, or your state association. I offer occasional training for my management staff to teach them how to offer constructive support, foster resiliency skills, and metabolize secondary trauma. My program is based on the STAR-T program, which offers residential educational opportunities for staff and leadership.
Kirsten Pabst is the elected prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, chairs NDAA’s Wellbeing Task Force, and is the author of Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.