A Fable: Don’t Fix Feelings, Fix the Cause

By John William Waterhouse – en:Image:Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_Odysseus.jpg http://moontale.egloos.com/865206, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426808

Think about this: Think about a woman staff member at a medium-sized regional museum. Like many, post-COVID, she’s over-worked, doing her pre-pandemic tasks, plus new ones. In addition, she’s also taken on a new role supporting a part-time HR department where she listens to staff with issues involving possible gender and race discrimination. When necessary, she reviews what’s happened to staff, ranging from socially awkward conversations to potentially criminal behavior. She’s competent, organized, compassionate, but increasingly overwhelmed. Not only is she doing too much, but the HR support she’s offered has opened a floodgate of response. That’s good–staff trust her–so they confide, but bad because the more word gets around, the more people come to see her. Her boss is a white man. He’s smart, genial, and genuinely wants to do the best for his colleagues. So far so good. Except as months go by, the woman felt increasingly stressed. Finally, she approached her leader to ask whether she could take something off her plate. Her boss acknowledged she had reached her limit. One look at her face would tell you that. His response? A beautifully crafted email to her front-facing colleagues explaining she is overwhelmed, and asking whether they could step in for her over the next month or two. She felt torn, both profoundly disappointed, and not really helped.

Asking your colleagues to step in for you is what happens when you have to drive your partner to chemo or a family member is in ICU. This makes it sound like the employee a) didn’t know her own mind when she agreed to her workload or b) is too fragile to carry if off. In a time when a lot of employees are nervous about losing their jobs, now is not the moment to make staff feel inadequate. And make no mistake, this scenario is overlaid with gender: the “good girl” employee and the benevolent male boss.

Sometimes leaders aim to fix feelings rather than the decisions that caused them. Any leader worth their salt knows they need to be empathetic, but in empathizing, they often go for the quick fix–let’s get the crying staff person to stop weeping, let’s give the parent who just lost their day care a break or the elderly staff person who hates night driving a change in hours. In any of those scenarios, the leader might feel as if they’ve solved a problem, and the staff member as though they can manage in the short term, but their colleagues, not so much.

In your urge to “help” an employee have you ever solved an immediate issue while leaving overarching, structural issues unresolved? Would the better course for the characters in the opening story have been for the leader to empathize, but not try to fix the employee’s problem, and instead work on the organizational problems? How could this fable have worked out better for both staff member and leader?

If you need to tell your leader you’re overwhelmed:

  • Don’t blame yourself for being overwhelmed. You want to do well, but you can’t if you’re not doing your best.
  • Strategize before your meeting. Making the conversation your museum, not you, may help guide your leader to make a change rather than a quick fix.
  • Come up with some alternate solutions for the organization. In our example, the staff member could suggest that while there might not have been a need for full-time HR in the beginning, data now points to making HR full time.
  • Last, what are ways, short of quitting your job, that you can support and care for yourself in a situation like this?

If you’re the leader:

  • Resist the temptation to make a quick fix, recognizing that a short-term fix for one may breed long term discomfort for others.
  • Consider who you’re meeting with. If, as in our scenario, it’s an employee who’s dedicated, smart, kind and curious, think about all the ways they support the museum from minuscule to huge. Before deciding you’ve given them too much, think about possible organizational changes you might make. Begin with the notion that competent people shouldn’t be overloaded with tasks simply because they are competent. Doesn’t that enable the less competent in their disorganization?
  • Consider talking to other members of your leadership group, and taking the temperature on overwork.
  • Be transparent with other staff about changes you make.

Be kind, be equitable, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


One Comment on “A Fable: Don’t Fix Feelings, Fix the Cause”

  1. Kristine Zickuhr says:

    These are all valid points. I’ve definitely noticed that competent and high-performing people shoulder more than their share. And understandably so, because they can be trusted to get things done and may not complain. I call it “holding up the world.” But we can’t overlook that it wears on people and will eventually result in the loss of talent. Part of the solution might relate to strategic planning. We have to rein in the tendency to try to do more than the organization’s capacity can actually support (or build the capacity before moving ahead).


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