Articles Tagged with

Jenny Jackson

Consulting, Jenny Jackson, Organisations, Women

Empathy and Boundaries (Caring, not Carrying):

It probably isn’t surprising that empathy and the “cost of caring” have been in the ‘top 5’ on the list of things discussed with me during mentoring and workshops in 2020 and so far in 2021. 2020 was a unique year – that’s for sure. And while we were all in the same storm, we weren’t all in the same boat. For empaths, it may well have been a particularly challenging year. Watching the suffering and lives lost through the pandemic, ongoing international conflict and also the politics of the US, for example – were all difficult to watch; whilst also seeing so much suffering, loss and hurt closer to home. For me and I am sure many of you, it was impossible not to care. And most of us wouldn’t want not to care. But we don’t want to burn out, either. So it started me thinking more deeply about “carrying” and how this differs from caring or being empathetic.

So many times over recent months I have had conversations with people about the “cost of caring” and it has led me to think about it in terms of “caring or carrying”. Reflecting on my own experience and choices over the years, I have started to really notice boundaries and the importance of these in the setting of being empathetic. Same caring, less carrying.

SYMPATHY is acknowledging that the other person is going through an emotional or physical struggle, supporting them and giving them comfort.

EMPATHY is something more, it’s actually understanding what the other person is feeling because you’ve had a similar experience yourself or you’re able to put yourself in their shoes.

Empathy involves honouring and respecting the other person’s experience without trying to take it from them by rescuing, comparing, or minimising and without taking on the experience ourselves. It is really vital for us to all understand that empathy is not sympathy, nor is it rescuing someone from their experience or relieving them of it. Empathy without boundaries will soon become “carrying”.

Many of us will relate to these scenarios…

  • The phone rings, but you hesitate, knowing that after speaking to this person you will feel depleted, sucked dry. Despite this, you answer the phone. Because you care.
  • Why is it that you’re always the one to offer to take the minutes at the meeting or join a committee? Because you care.

With good boundaries, it is entirely possible to care, without carrying. By being able to say “no”, “not now” or “I can do this much”, we protect and preserve our ability to have empathy for the longer term. We avoid burnout. I have noticed that resentment, or feeling resentful, is a sign for many (me included) that we need to pay attention to our boundaries and our “carrying” of too much stuff. This paying attention to boundaries might come easily sometimes. Sometimes we are really clear about what we are feeling resentful for, and why. But at other times we might feel generally resentful to many things and it might take some thought to work out what is at the core of it. However it is that we come to the core of the resentment, having arrived there, we should take some time to put some boundaries in place. It might be sharing the load with someone by asking for help. It might be saying no to someone or something. It might be turning your phone off and prioritising time for you and what you need. It might be having a conversation with someone about putting some limits or boundaries in place.

While setting boundaries is often not an easy task, it may well engender greater respect from others and in a way, provide others with the ability to see that they can do this for themselves too. As a leader, it is essential to set boundaries whilst also showing true empathy and kindness. For example, an “open door policy” should not mean that staff can come in to your office at any time for any matter. This is likely to result in you carrying their issues and not having capacity to address your own priorities. Setting clear boundaries about an open, respectful communication channel coupled; with boundaries for you to attend to your own priorities is important and may take some practice. But it will be worth it.

My top tips for managing boundaries!

  1. Ask yourself am I caring or carrying? Are you sitting with someone, alongside of their joy or pain or are you trying to ‘make them feel better’ by taking it on yourself?
  2. Pause before you say yes! Don’t feel the need to agree to things in the moment – otherwise you’re likely to feel resentful or regretful by the time you get home!
  3. Get comfortable with “no” and “not now” or “not yet”
  4. When you say “yes” – mean it! Then dive in!
  5. Use technology to help you put boundaries in place. Turn off your notifications, set it to “do not disturb”, put an out of office reply on to “buy” you some time before you have to respond. \
  6. Train yourself and others to not set the expectation that you will respond immediately.

Business, Consulting

The Head and Heart of Leadership

There are many who write and talk about “head and heart” in leadership. I hope that this blog stimulates discussion and thought for you. Writing it has certainly helped me to bring further clarity to my own thinking about leadership.

Head and Heart leadership has been a strong focus of my own leadership style for as long as I can remember. To be truthful, at the time I didn’t think of it in that way, in fact I don’t think I thought about it at all. It just seemed ‘the right thing to do’ and ‘the right way to do it’. It was purely intuitive and definitely not planned.

The first time I recall being made aware of my ‘style’ was when I was a newly appointed Director of Nursing at a hospital in Melbourne. It had been alleged by a patient that a member of staff had been physically abusive to them. This type of complaint was very rare (phew) and, looking back on it now, it was a big thing to deal with in my first senior leadership role. It could have gone horribly wrong…

This complaint obviously triggered an investigation into the matter and included a meeting with the staff member. Fortunately, the staff member brought their union representative along with them. During the meeting, the staff member agreed that the patient accusation was correct and that they had done what was alleged. This amounted to serious misconduct and appropriate action was taken in accordance with the organisations’ disciplinary procedures (ie termination of employment). We discussed this in detail at the meeting and next steps were outlined by me and agreed by the staff member. Following the meeting, the union rep made the following statement and it has stuck with me forever.

“Just before we finish, I want to acknowledge how fair and kind you have been today and I want to thank you for that. It is very rare to come to a meeting which is managed the way you have done it, despite the nature of the issue and the outcome for xx (staff member).”

I was stunned – it isn’t common to have such feedback when essentially terminating someone’s employment. I did not (and still don’t) regard my management of this incident as anything special – it was just the right way to do it as far as I was concerned. This was a very serious incident and resulted in someone losing their job. They had done the wrong thing, no question. But that did not warrant or give me license to be unfair, unreasonable or even unkind to the staff member.

Since then, there have been many other sources of feedback which have reflected appreciation for me remaining kind, people-focussed and respectful (behaving with “heart”) whilst also ensuring that the business needs and accountabilities are fulfilled (“head”). Each time, I have felt somewhat awkward about receiving such feedback and have frequently commented that I don’t think we, as leaders “should get brownie points for being kind. Kindness and respect should be a given”. Apparently though, it isn’t a given for many. I’m really curious about this and have often pondered why it is that some leaders don’t bring heart to their leadership. Is it that they see it as “soft” and therefore, a bad or “weak” thing? Is it because to bring heart to leadership we must show something of ourselves and perhaps this creates a vulnerability that some leaders can’t accept?

There are definitely risks associated with too much of one or the other. Look at any organisation where the leader preferences being “liked” and neglects to ensure that the business performs, and look at any organisation where the people are “invisible” to the leaders and the business outcomes are the priority. Both look different, but I (and many others) argue that neither style will achieve sustained, longer term success.

There’s certainly a challenge in finding our own, unique ‘sweet spot’ – where we balance both head and heart.

I am absolutely convinced that a balance of both “head” and “heart” are essential components for any leader to be successful over time. So convinced that in my new series of workshops entitled “Conversations With The Curious”, the first session will focus on this directly.

I’m curious about what you think about head and heart of leadership and welcome your thoughts and views!

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