It happens in an instant. You’re chatting with a team member and you see the bricks stack up around them like a drawbridge pulling up and you lose the only access to their island. They put up their armor and you know at that moment, you have lost them. The circle of safety is no longer there for them.
All team members have armor, just like we do. When they put on armor and when they feel safe enough to take it off is a key finding for leaders in their communication with team members. By listening deeply to find the sources of the armor, we can help them back to the circle of safety. When team members sense there is a circle of safety, they feel they can be more vulnerable and brave with their fellow team members and their manager.
They all have stories behind that armor. It’s up to us as leaders to learn those stories. When we know those stories, it’s easier to see the trigger points and be able to coach to those moments with the care that is needed to support them. But this requires us to be vulnerable as leaders first. Growing up, I often heard from leaders to keep work and life separate. I want team members to bring their whole, human selves to work. And I expect that I bring my whole, human self to work.
When we show up authentically as leaders and we are vulnerable, we create a circle of safety because we are embracing our humanness. Hiding our faults, our failures, and our embarrassments, only portrays to our teams that it’s not okay to fail, and it’s not okay to be human. I still catch myself armoring up at times. Before speaking, I ask myself where the armor is coming from. By slowing my reaction and asking myself this question, I’m better able to thoughtfully, and non-defensively communicate my feelings. Showing up to work with both our head and our heart requires courage.
As Brene Brown states, “You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability.” When we open up to our teams and share our stories, we slowly help them lower the drawbridge to provide space for open and safe dialogue. And you can get to vulnerability without giving team members intricate details of shame, failure, or hurt. Simply telling a team member you see a therapist regularly, may give them the courage to share their own mental health experiences with you.
Don’t force the extraction of their stories. Not all stories need to be told for you to understand where their need to armor up lies. In the subtleties, you may learn enough to be able to navigate the river that keeps their drawbridge down, providing them the safety to be vulnerable.
While we need to normalize mental health in the workplace, that is not an invitation for managers to become psychologists. Have tools easily accessible for team members to reference. Include the phone number and website of your employee assistance program on your intranet. Include an easy to understand summary of insurance benefits where it relates to the costs of attending therapy and local therapists that are included in your insurance benefits listed on your intranet. Be flexible in providing extended lunches to allow team members time to attend therapy sessions. Create an internal library of self help books that team members can borrow from the breakroom. And above all else, be supportive as a leader. There is already far too much judgement surrounding mental health. Be the safe and inclusive second space for your team. In the long run, it will create incredibly loyal and engaged team members.