How To Fix Languishing Leadership

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What Do You Do With A Languishing Leader With Dr. Vince Molinaro

That title probably sounds like a sea shanty but it’s  actually a serious problem, both for teams and organization. 

In a recent article, author and organizational psychologist Adam Grant called languishing “the neglected middle child of mental health” – an emotional state between depression and burnout that doesn’t get as much attention but has the potential to create as just as many challenges for organizations – especially if the languishing person in question happens to be your boss. Leadership consultant, best-selling author and friend of the Nexus podcast Dr. Vince Molinaro returns to tell us what we can do for and about languishing leaders BEFORE they drag us down with them.

Show Transcript

Chris Nelson [00:00:00] If you’re looking for great examples of terrible leadership, you could hardly do better than the TV series Mad Men. Even by the standards of the decade in which the show is set, the 60s, the degree of atrocious people mismanagement at Sterling Cooper is somewhat breathtaking to behold. Which, of course, is what makes it a great drama. And as you might expect, the most obvious example of this egregiously bad leadership has to be the show’s central anti-hero, be inwardly troubled but outwardly confident. Don Draper. Now, let’s be honest. Most of us love Don, but no amount of good looks or prodigious talent can paper over the horrible ways in which he treats his people. And there’s no better example of this than what is arguably my favorite scene of the series and possibly one of my favorite TV scenes of all time. It takes place in an elevator between Don and the copywriter Michael in this particular moment on that elevator. Michael is seething with resentment and fury at Don, no doubt for many things. But the most recent slight comes when Don pitches his own idea over Michael’s to a client.

Michael [00:01:12] What do I care? I got a million of them.

Don [00:01:15] Good. I guess I’m lucky you work for me.

Michael [00:01:21] I feel bad for you.

Don [00:01:22] I don’t think about you at all.

Chris Nelson [00:01:26] Now, in my opinion, that is one of the sickest burns ever, which also makes it the last thing a leader should say to one of their people. But what fans know that Michael and probably even Don doesn’t, is that in that moment and for a big portion of the series, Don is languishing. Now, you’ve probably heard that word a lot lately since the concept of languishing has gone viral, thanks to author and organizational psychologist Adam Grant. Earlier this year, he wrote an article for The New York Times where he described languishing that state between depression and burnout, which he calls the neglected middle child of mental health. You don’t feel hopeless and you can function sometimes even at a high level, but you don’t feel dynamic either.

Chris Nelson [00:02:15] Instead, you’re directionless, stagnant, empty. According to Grant, the emotional toll of the pandemic has caused many of us to languish, so much so that he described languishing as potentially the dominant emotion of 2021. And he’s obviously touched a nerve since that article has been shared over and over within a day of its publication, it was shared with me personally, no less than a dozen times. But it is one thing to be languishing yourself, quite another to be led by someone who’s languishing. As Michael can attest with Don Draper, that can be an elevator full of pain headed straight to the basement. A nightmare scenario that our guest on this episode happens to think about all the time. Leadership consultant, best selling author and friend of The Nexus, Dr. Vince Molinaro, joins us to talk about what to do with a languishing leader.

Chris Nelson [00:03:14] What was your visceral reaction, your first reaction to reading that article in The New York Times by Adam Grant about languishing?

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:03:21] He does an exceptional job of framing up issues that we’re going through in organizations. And so to me, it was very consistent with what I’ve written kind of years before. But also I think it was really helpful to have someone of his stature really comment on something like that. What it also did is it really validated what I was seeing day to day and working with my customers of leaders who are just feeling overloaded, overworked. There’s just a lot going on. And that’s also consistent with what I felt last year.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:03:58] There was that peak of the crisis. Everyone figured it out as best they could. And then as I looked to 2021, my gut was saying, I think this year is going to be harder. Just the additional work, the additional complexity, the additional pressure is just adding on people. And I think a big part of that languishing is also our just our fundamental basic routines. Right. Like days blur into one another. Weekends don’t feel like weekends. And so some of those markers we have that you would say, oh, it’s the weekend, I better not work, become a bit tougher as well. So there’s a number of factors related to his insights. What’s important is he’s given us the platform to have a conversation.

Chris Nelson [00:04:41] One of the first bits of advice that you give to leaders, if they happen to be languishing, is admit that you’re languishing. Is that actually a difficult thing for leaders to do?

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:04:53] Well, I think there’s a couple of aspects to it. Number one, you do lose perspective, and so it can be difficult to kind of feel that malaise you’re going through. But sometimes we think we’re fooling others. Sometimes it’s valuable when you get feedback from a trusted colleague, when they kind of say, hey, you do it OK to not get defensive around it, it could be just a signal that they’re not seeing you be the way you normally are.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:05:19] I think the other aspect of it is we might know it, but really are going to struggle to admit it because it’s kind of admitting a vulnerability or a weakness. And some of us in leadership roles don’t like having to do that. So I think those are the two dimensions of it. But I think, you know, like any problem or any issue, you really can’t improve it unless you admit the current state. And that’s really what that’s about. Leadership is hard work, it’s not an easy role, it’s become that much harder ever since we’ve been living through this pandemic and you’re going to expect periods of time when you’re not at your best. So let’s just normalize it. Let’s not get defensive and that you also really have an obligation to catch yourself as quickly as you can so you can kind of try to get yourself out of that funk.

Chris Nelson [00:06:04] Describe to us the challenge that a languishing leader poses to a business or to a team.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:06:12] Your team looks to you. You set the tone for the team. And if the team dynamic is such that there isn’t a level of trust where someone can kind of say, hey, boss, we’re seeing something in you, we’re concerned about you, you’re not at your best, then that conversation never happens. And then it becomes sort of this hidden secret that everybody knows about, but no one can seem to have the courage to raise it to the boss or to their manager. And then that just perpetuates the problem and it just creates this awkward dynamic.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:06:42] So that means your team isn’t getting the best of you. And then if it’s happening organizationally and I had this happen a few weeks ago with a senior executive on the call and she was in a funk. Really affected that whole team because, you know, it was a strong team, they were really trying to drive a lot of priorities, this kind of set them back and it was just the frustration that was getting the best of her. And we kind of talk through it. And I think what I have found is just not about judging it, just about let’s normalize it. It’s tough, we’re going through it and let’s figure out how to get through this together. So those are really the things that play out personally at a team, at an organizational level and why getting defensive doesn’t help.

Chris Nelson [00:07:29] Perhaps you could sort of share some of those very practical tips for those leaders who happen to be languishing to help them stop languishing and get the flourishing.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:07:38] The first step is he got to admit it and you’ve got to understand that these things happen, it’s not about being the hero as a leader. We are ultimately human beings and we’re all going through a lot and the expectations continue to be great for leaders. So push the ego aside, accept it. And that’s the starting point that I think the other thing is what are the signals that would cause you to sort of determine you might be languishing? And it’s different for every individual.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:08:07] One that I see a lot is that person starts to uncharacteristically start whining and complaining and kind of coming off as a victim. And that’s never great for anybody in a leadership role. In particular, there are moments. And so there if you need a few moments, find a trusted colleague, pick up a phone call, or set up a zoomer teams meeting and just say, listen, I need ten minutes, your time. I just got to vent. I got to get this out of my system so I can get back to what I need to do at the end of it. It’s about this ownership that you need to figure out.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:08:37] Then it’s like, so what’s going to inspire you? Because it’s a way to elevate yourself is to find what’s that thing that will inspire you? Where do you get that source of inspiration that will spark, you know, that personal energy that will kind of get you to that next level. And this is based on years ago when I did my graduate work, one of my profs was a world expert on personal renewal. And he found that often conversations with a colleague, particularly when you’re going through similar challenges, actually have a positive effect on really generating personal renewal. One of the things that I find fascinating in organizations and I’ve seen this and I’ve asked this question over and over again, if you’re working with a group of leaders and there are collectively in a funk, you then ask them, OK, we get the struggles you’re going through. But how many of you have something inside of you? There’s more for you to give. There’s an opportunity. There’s something that you can unleash inside of you that will just take your own performance, your team’s performance at another level.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:09:35] It is surprising to me how many times all the hands go up when we used to do these sessions in a room with people. So we have this sort of dichotomy of dealing with the reality in the languishing, but at the same time having this side of us that we don’t feel has been unleashed. And I think that’s what we got. That’s that point of what’s that inspiration you need to kind of unleash that, because all of a sudden, the second you do, you now transform this negative energy into positive energy. It doesn’t make the context any easier, but now you’re just approaching it with a bit of a different mindset.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:10:07] The other thing we do in our leadership programs, we help leaders kind of identify the experiences that have shaped them to be the leader who they are, and we kind of call them their leadership story. And we say, well, if you’ve done this work and in my leadership contract, feel got to show the reader how to do this, it’s helpful to go back to it and to find other moments in your career when you may have been in a funk and how you kind of got out of it, or those inspirational moments where you were able to just rise above whatever circumstance you had. Because ultimately what I find fascinating and research in the leadership development area confirms this, as does my practical experience, is that leaders find the toughest experiences, the most formative. So that’s the other way of thinking about it is, well, we’re either languishing or this is now another leadership challenge for me to figure out how to lead through it. And that in and of itself kind of helps as well.

Chris Nelson [00:11:02] What advice would you have for those people who are being led by someone who’s languishing, what can they do to support that person?

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:11:10] Well, I think, you know, follows the same line of thinking. If you have the courage, you’ve got to bring your observations to that individual and you’ve got to do it from a place of you care so much about that individual that you’re prepared to have that discussion, because that’s the starting point. I remember years back in a company I worked with, we were going through a bit of a rough patch from a performance standpoint. Our CEO was just really, really struggling with the state we were in and it didn’t seem to matter what we were trying to do. Nothing seemed to work. And we had a big meeting with our top leaders and I was involved in designing that. And I knew that if he showed up in the state he was in, it was going to just sink us deeper into a negative spiral. So I reached out to him, says we’ve got to have a chat.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:12:00] And I brought it to his attention. He basically just listened. He didn’t give me any validation, didn’t say anything. He didn’t yell at me or anything, which was good. So I I don’t know if what I said landed, but on the day of that meeting, he really showed up well and really inspired us to say, listen, we’re going to figure this out. And I believe in this team, which is what he really needed to say at that moment. At the end of that evening, he sends me an email and he said, thanks for that and don’t ever be afraid to come to me and give me this kind of feedback again. So I think a lot of times the fear is what holds people back from doing it. And if you really care about your manager, I think you have an obligation to support him or her when they’re going through this, because it’s a challenging role. And I think a lot of team members rarely appreciate what they’re really going through. They rarely have the whole picture of what that manager or that senior leader and then relate it to that is assuming you do that is have their back. It’s sort of like if you have the bandwidth to say, hey, I can take this off your plate. I can’t tell you when team members have done that for me, how grateful you are. Those are often some of the best words you can hear.

Chris Nelson [00:13:08] Vince, you are a sensei. Every time I talk to you, I learn something new. The scales slip further off my eyes. Thank you so much for coming back and talking to us again. And all I can say is this is not over.

Dr. Vince Molinaro [00:13:22] Yes. Yes. Any time. Great chatting with you.

Chris Nelson [00:13:30] If you want to hear some fascinating conversations on the subject of leadership not limited to languishing, then I encourage you to check out Vince’s podcast, “Lead the Future.” You can find it wherever you get your podcasts, as well as on his website at Dr. Vince Molinaro dot com. Now, here’s a question for you. Is your life littered with languishing leaders? Do dysfunctional Don Draper’s drapes around your workplace, taking out their angst on others or even just their horrible penchant for alliteration? If so, then it may be time for an intervention, in which case let Nexus help. We’ve been providing learning and leadership solutions to clients for over two decades, and we can do the same for you. Find us at www dot nexus communications dot com. That’s N-E-X-U-S Communications dot com and special thanks to Adam Grant for his article on Languishing, which you can find on our website, The Nexus podcast dot com. When we told Adam that we loved and sort of envied his work, all he had to say to us was this: I don’t think about you at all. That cuts deep man… Like real deep. The Nexus is produced by Alexa Pavao with editing and sound design by Jeff Littlejohn. I’m Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.

Episode 15