When I was pregnant with my second kid, I had a physically miserable time. No, there was nothing medically wrong with either of us, and yes, I was grateful for that. But that didn’t stop me from also being pretty miserable — severe headaches, carpal tunnel, laryngitis, back pain, etc.
What made it worse is that my obstetrician was so damned cheerfully dismissive. Every visit, I would relay my current pain and she would tell me the smiling equivalent of “oh, that’s nothing unusual, you’ll be fine.”
That was basically true. And intellectually I was perfectly aware that there wasn’t much that could be done while I was pregnant. But I didn’t really want or expect her to offer treatment. I just wanted acknowledgement. I wanted her to (like my previous OB) say, “Wow, that really sucks. That sounds awful.”
I’ve been a manager through a variety of work situations that have been challenging for people on my team. Sometimes it’s a temporary and individual crappy situation; sometimes it’s a larger morale issue or a bureaucratic mess or customer catastrophe that impacts a bunch of people. But when it sucks, I’ve always found it’s better to go ahead and agree.
Some organizations think that this is a no-no. That, as leaders, it’s our job to put a positive spin on things. That we should focus instead on the good things that accompany the bad, or explain the reasons behind the situation. That, if even the people in positions of power admit that something is awful, everyone will be hopelessly demoralized.
That is awful.
There is nothing more demoralizing than seeing a situation going bad and having a manager insist that it’s fine. To say “oh, that issue is in the past!”, “oh, we’re already fixing that problem!”, “oh, it’s just no big deal!” This means either your manager is lying to you, or is possibly a robot.
No one wants to work for a robot.
When something sucks, agree. Acknowledge. Look someone in the eye and listen and don’t try to talk them out of their feelings.
And then — and here’s the real hard work that makes leaders — help redirect towards positive action. That sucks, here’s how we can fix it. Or that sucks, here’s how we can prevent it in the future. Or sometimes, that sucks, there’s nothing we can do, but we can choose to focus our attention on this other more rewarding task.
But the movement towards positive action can’t begin when people still feel like you’re denying what they are clearly seeing and feeling.