Kate Pearlman-Shaw is the Managing Director of Pearlman-Shaw Consultancy. She specialises in helping leaders to change their behaviours. She worked for 18 years as a UK Clinical Psychologist and leader, then for the last 17 years as a leadership development coach and facilitator internationally in private and public sector organisations. Kate has extensive experience running leadership development programmes, coaching teams and individuals, in Board development and is a sought-after public speaker. Since 2019 she has run her own company specialising in the application of psychology to meet organisational and leadership needs. She is a double Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, both as a Coaching Psychologist and a Clinical Psychologist. She is registered with the UK Health and Care Professions Council.
Who said leadership was comfortable? The leaders I meet often talk about the loneliness of leadership perhaps from the moment of internal promotion where you are no longer one of your peer team, through to taking difficult decisions that you have ultimate responsibility for. Eminent psychologists tell us that we need psychological safety in teams, which really means tolerating and facilitating the discomfort that disagreement brings. And leadership is full of frustrations, these days enhanced in a hybrid working environment where you don’t see team members daily, perhaps worry about their wellbeing or are unhappy with their output. Being a leader brings empowerment, status, chances to do great things and develop fabulous people but comes with the need to tolerate and manage a high degree of discomfort in yourself and others.
Without self-insight some leaders don’t realise when they are uncomfortable, this can manifest as thoughtlessness, poor communication, and overt negativity to their colleagues. Others do realise but don’t have adequate techniques to manage. We’re told in contemporary leadership models to show our vulnerability, yet too much honesty has a brutal impact and too much expressed worry causes a ‘contagion’ effect through a group.
In psychotherapy, trainees learn about the principles of emotional containment, defined as the ‘management of one’s emotions in order to present oneself and interact with other people in a certain way while doing a job’. This ability to ‘hold onto yourself,’ is necessary in maintaining good boundaries, enabling you to consciously find the right balance between holding back and being vulnerable. This is not about suppression or repression of emotions, more a feature of conscious self-control, deciding when and where to express whichever type of discomfort you are experiencing.
Social support, mental rest and recuperation are crucial discomfort management strategies enabling this process of containment. Social support is a key correlate of resilience: the better connected we are, the more positive interactions we have with others, the more likely we are to be able to manage a key range of feelings. This may be having a confidante to sound off to; someone to articulate that discomfort to and to work through the problem within a thoughtful way; perhaps a coach or mentor for advice about what to do, or someone at work to have some fun with to offset and balance our pain and pleasure mechanisms. No sprinter or marathon runner would run for a second time without replenishment: its why simple everyday adjustments, such as 50-minute meetings, gives you a chance to process what you’ve just contained or let out your frustrations before it’s time for the next situation. Journaling at the end of the day can help as a ‘vessel’ for our discomfort, stopping it preoccupying us at night.
To open up or to hold back?
How can we make that crucial decision about whether to open up and be voluntarily vulnerable or to hold back? This is very dependent on the levels of other’s discomfort, the impact you have on them. Currently thought of as the number one predictor of team effectiveness ‘psychological safety’, coined and defined by Amy Edmondson as “the belief that no-one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes” is all about tolerating and managing your and others discomfort. The worst thing that a leader can do to their team members is to regularly cause pain: criticism, conflict, feeling unsupported or unappreciated cause are what neuroscientists refer to as ‘social pain’. These expressions of a leader’s discomfort cause unsafe and thereby unproductive teams.
Through curiosity, active listening, understanding, showing compassion, providing purpose, clarity, support, and enjoyment the leader sets the scene for an atmosphere that balances pleasure with pain, a key brain state needed for optimal effectiveness, All hard to do when the leader is in a place of worry, frustration or is overwhelmed, so in a place of discomfort themselves. Studies of this pain-pleasure continuum show that the more we tolerate discomfort the more we can appreciate the pleasurable times.
Discomfort through change
Understanding the mechanisms of how humans process any change is also crucial for leaders. Not everyone gets excited about change. It’s quite natural that when explaining your vision or expectations the other will become uncomfortable. Containing another’s dissonance is important here, they may need your help to adjust to what you want, you’ll need to be attentive, give them some time, understand their barriers, support, and help. While all of these help them, these activities may slow you down, creating discomfort for you. If you encounter such discomfort don’t react, be compassionate, take your frustration elsewhere, using those support mechanisms. More often than not your colleague will have processed and adjusted by the next time you check in.
Organisation and planning help to decrease discomfort
Effective leaders need space. In today’s ridiculously busy world I consider time to be the ‘enemy’ of good leaders. Without a good plan for realistically using available time, we quickly get overwhelmed, a key source of leadership discomfort I’m seeing post-pandemic. Multiple studies are demonstrating that the better planned and organised we are at work the more productive and happier we are. In other words, our discomfort can be lowered by a good planning and prioritisation system. Don’t underestimate how much a plan can help you to manage that leadership discomfort.
Staying future focussed, on solving the problem, also helps as long as we process the frustrations or difficulties encountered along the way. Focusing on blame or constantly trying to make sense of what went wrong anchors us in prolonged discomfort. Obviously finding root causes and determining how problems don’t happen again is key, yet that can be done in a healthy, non-blaming, lessons-learnt way.
The starting point: self-awareness
As with much leadership development the starting point is self-awareness. Be aware of your discomfort, know the signs. Watch out for how you are both mentally and physically. Observe your posture too: for example, when we’re afraid we tend to adopt closed postures, so opening up physically, adopting a more open posture can help to redress our reaction, sending signals through our interoceptive nervous system to our brain to say that there isn’t any danger to respond to. This is a quick method of processing, then calming discomfort.
Effective leadership means knowing when you are uncomfortable, what’s causing it, then making conscious decisions about how to handle it. It means knowing when to share, when to temporarily contain and where to take those feelings so that they don’t cause harm to you, your colleagues or even your loved ones.