How Much Does Leadership Affect Our Mental Health?


Tonight’s debate was not our leaders’ finest hour. In the midst of a pandemic when Americans are facing unprecedented mental health concerns, the first 2020 presidential debate struck me as stone cold tone deaf. Where was the common courtesy? The humility and modesty? Did you see any? If you did, you must have been paying very close attention. I missed it and I am writing from a non-partisan point of view right now.

I turned off my screen after this first debate and wondered: What kind of effect will this have on Americans watching? Then I looked at the pile of mental health research on my desk showing Americans level of anxiety, stress, burnout and depression are reaching new highs. We are living through a time when community and cultural trust is at all-time low. Many of us have stopped showing up for people who are indifferent to our values and stopped prioritizing people who make us an option. 

There is still a chance for leaders to do better. Here’s what researchers suggest:

Seeing Is Believing

Optimism. That to me is the number one thing people wanted out of this debate—some small degree of optimism. I hope you somehow managed to find some in all that yammering. Research shows that believing that things will improve in the coming months is based on how we feel. Our brains are designed to ask, How does this remind me of? How did I act the last time I was presented with a situation like this? I had a physical reaction—head to toe anxiety. As a leader in politics, business, or community, you need a strategy for managing ambiguity that comes with change.

Anxiety Is Soaring

Give people the confidence boost they are craving. In the weeks ahead, we will be looking to the leaders closest to us—in community, business and family, to ease our anxiety. A quote from a business innovation conference that hangs on my bulletin board is often the perfect antidote to low points like these. I scribbled it down during a talk by Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia: “The catalyst for change is what we allow ourselves to see. It is our responsibility to give others the gift of sight.” She is he first-ever clinical psychologist to run Chicago’s Cook County Jail, which holds thousands of people with mental illness. You can see her talk from the Marshall Project, here.

 To lower the stress level in the country even by an inch, here’s what research suggests leaders should focus on as the country enters an unprecedented period of turmoil. 

Create Peace of Mind Through Clarity 

Clarity was not on display in last night’s debate. There are, thankfully, proven ways to clarify and elevate conversations, even during times of high anxiety and ongoing uncertainty. (Don’t mistake my intent. This isn’t about how we should all imagine we can all play nicely in the sandbox right now.) What I am suggesting right now is more open, healthy debate that does not deteriorate into dysfunction. Diversity of thought, if rooted in collaboration, can lower anxiety in the workplace and boost confidence in leadership. This isn’t about positive mindset, either—all the positivity in the world can’t change the toxicity on display last night. 

Keep People From Tuning Out

One of my favorite pieces by Lolly Daskal, a leadership expert and author, is titled “Why People Stop Listening to You.” Her advice read like a laundry list of don’ts from last night’s debate. Don’t use too many words or speak with negativity. Avoid unclear messaging or its opposite, trying too hard. And finally, too much information and lack of respect turn people off.

Open Minds, Share Learnings

Creating a culture of growth (versus one feeling shut-down, tired and exhausted from disagreement) isn’t as tough as you might imagine. According to one recent study by the Neurodiversity Leadership Institute, which uses science to make organizations more human, slogging through tough times demands that we share mistakes and learnings and talk about them openly with each other. When it comes to the pandemic and a future vaccine, for instance, a guarded approach to managing employees by limiting information will likely backfire. 

Push Forward, Plan A For A Reset

Looking out at a sea of uncertainty and loss is humbling. Fostering care, community and cooperation are the best way forward for leaders, facing exhaustion themselves and burnout on their teams. Investing in ways in which employees can gain emotional intelligence, coaching and project management skills, even in a time of scarcity, will pay off in the long run, according to a recent study by Kronos. The study, done in the midst of the pandemic, looks ahead at what the keys to human resources success could look like.

 

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