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Mind Share – How can we open up the bandwidth of employees?

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In a recent workshop with senior managers from different companies we were talking about mind-share – how much of it can we get from employees and what takes it away?

It is a key issue in many companies.  In this particular discussion the concern was over employees who have personal financial problems that are serious enough to leave them preoccupied at work.  They are so consumed by their situation (and who wouldn’t be if, for example, you were about to lose your home?) they simply are not “present” at work.  Sure, they’re sitting at their desk, but most of their mental bandwidth (or mind-share) is dedicated to their felt sense of fear and anxiety surrounding their financial plight.

CEO’s have in the past told me that employees should leave their problems at home.  The expectation, apparently, is that human beings should be able to turn off their emotional experience like a light switch when they come to work.  I suspect these CEO’s imagine themselves operating this way as well.  Both notions, that either employees or leadership can cleanly separate their felt emotions from home and work, are delusional.  It is, in fact, impossible to turn emotions on and off if only due to the fact that what triggers felt emotion is not controllable by intellect or cognition.  There are, remarkably, still people (including psychologists and other professionals in the mental health field) that believe that thoughts control & shape emotions.  “Change the way you think and your emotions will follow…,” they maintain.  A convenient illusion for people who are either uncomfortable with emotions or they think of emotions as being irrational, intractable, unreliable and the like.

A growing body of research shows the reverse to be true, that is, our emotions actually inform and shape our thinking.  Now this notion, that emotions have a significant (and perhaps overwhelming) influence on what we think (and do), is an enormous opportunity for organizations, whether profit, non-profit, or governmental.  Why?  Because we know a lot about emotions and how can impact them.

But let’s come back to the issue that came up with these senior leaders.  What can we do with employees who spend a significant time at work focused on their financial problems?  Let me answer this in two different ways.  First, I would begin with a piece of advice we give our clients when dealing with employees or family members full of anxiety.  Therapists often refer to people in this state as “flooded”, a reference to the fact that they can’t think clearly, find it harder to focus and make decisions, etc.  When people are flooded, you will generally find it effective (especially BEFORE you offer fixes and solutions) to offer them the following:
•    Validation
•    Understanding, and
•    Empathy

In upcoming blog posts I will offer examples of what kinds of words you can use to best convey these three key components of communicating effectively in these types of situations.

Now here comes the second answer or solution to the situation where employees are consumed with their own financial woes, and it was offered by the same executive who raised the issue initially.  He decided that his company, even though the problem was outside the firm’s scope of responsibility, should hire a credit counselor who could come in and offer (at no charge to the employees), credit counseling.  Employees would get access to expertise and help otherwise unaffordable to them, and the company’s return is in additional staff bandwidth (the reduced felt sense of anxiety resulting from the help, the gesture, and the renewed sense of help), goodwill, and a clear demonstration of how the company can support workers.

BEST PRACTICE – Do not assume or expect that employees can easily separate their emotions between the workplace and their home life.

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