Embracing Uncomfortable Conversations: Leaning Out to Create Authentic Connections

–co-authored by Mindy Honcoop

Noël found herself mentally fatigued, burned out, and disengaged from her work. How did she end up here when she felt so energized by this new role just a short while ago?

Even before the Pandemic, Noël started feeling discouraged and isolated from her colleagues. When she transferred to the engineering department two years ago, she was excited for the opportunity to align her passion with her daily craft – Noël loved developing creative solutions that made a difference. However, as the only female on the team, she found it incredibly difficult to get her ideas heard. During team retrospectives, she’d propose opportunities for improvement; but after several sprints with the same issues showing up, she felt like a broken record and became frustrated. Noël took her concerns to her manager Jan who was empathetic to her situation and gave her some ideas to try. As Noel tried the suggestions, she could see the team behavior start to shift, and she was hopeful that things were on the right path.

Then, the world changed. On top of all the other uncertainties, the entire team started working from home, adding complexity to an already stressful situation. As a group, they began to struggle.

The cost of a manager who ignores or abdicates responsibility for people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing is staggering.

In a virtual environment, Noël’s ability to speak up and be heard suddenly felt insurmountable. During several of their 1:1’s over Zoom, Noël tried to explain her frustrations to Jan, but Jan didn’t seem to be listening, rarely even turning on her video camera. During calls with other teammates, Noël sensed that she wasn’t the only one feeling distance from Jan. As stress increased and the team struggled to complete sprints on time, they blamed each other – and Jan.

As the team’s productivity suffered, Noël found it hard to find the energy to start her workday. In desperation, Noël called Jan one last time to get help. During the call, Jan abruptly interrupted her and suggested Noël call the company’s EAP (employee assistance program), then turned to a work-related issue.

The Cost of Avoiding Conversations About Emotional and Mental Health

Jan, Noël, and the team found themselves in a situation that has become increasingly common, especially for remote teams. Early in the pandemic, there was a level of mutual empathy. People gave each other the benefit of the doubt and didn’t mind making compromises. They recognized that everyone had to make dramatic adjustments in the way they worked. But that’s changing. As people grow more comfortable with remote work and the strains of meeting goals rise, patience and goodwill erode. But there is something deeper going on between Jan and Noël, with potentially dire consequences for them, the team, and the organization.

In 2018, the American Heart Association estimated the annual cost of depression to organizations at $17,241 per person.

The cost of a manager who ignores or abdicates responsibility for people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing is staggering. This cost comes in many forms, such as lower productivity, higher turnover, and even employee health. While everyone has emotional ups and downs, it’s estimated that over 46 million U.S. adults (almost 1 in 5) experience a serious mental health condition such as depression at some point in their work lives. In 2018, the American Heart Association estimated the annual cost of depression to organizations at $17,241 per person. Unum, a leading provider of employee benefits, 2019 research report on mental health at work describes the significant impact on job performance, mainly through lack of focus, irritability, lower productivity, missed work, tension with co-workers, and slower career advancement. Given that cost, why aren’t organizations more proactive in addressing the problem?

Managers play an outsized role in influencing people’s mental and emotional health at work.

One significant issue is lopsided metrics. Few organizations see fostering mental health and wellbeing at work as an essential skill for their leaders. There are a seemingly endless number of performance-related metrics for managers and their teams. Yet, there are rarely any measures of leader effectiveness in developing and sustaining strong, healthy relationships. With no measurement, there is little incentive to improve. According to Unum, just 25 percent of managers in the U.S. have received training on referring employees to mental health resources, and it’s usually in the form of a one-and-done classroom session or online course. The result is that less than half of people in leadership roles know how to help someone who comes to them with a mental health issue.

People who lack empathy and are generally disagreeable tend to show little interest in connecting with how other people feel.

Another challenge for managers is personality and its role in our reaction to other people’s distress. People who lack empathy and are generally disagreeable tend to show little interest in connecting with how other people feel. In other cases, discomfort with emotional and mental health issues arises from over-relating when others are distressed, causing someone to feel anxious and self-conscious. The result is an unwillingness to meaningfully engage in conversations about people’s mental and emotional state. In reverse, according to Unum’s research, employees often don’t talk about their mental health condition with others because they feel ashamed, are concerned about discrimination by co-workers, or fear they won’t receive the desired promotion. The combination of these behaviors leads to a low-trust environment, preventing people from feeling as though they can work safely, authentically, and be fully engaged. That is a recipe for increased stress and anxiety, poor performance, lower productivity, and increased turnover—a high price to pay for avoiding crucial conversations about people’s mental and emotional health at work.

Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortable Conversations 

Noël was excited when she joined the engineering team, seeing an opportunity to find purpose in her work aligned with her desire to make a difference. Entering a new team in a different department can have challenges, and often they revolve around relationship dynamics. Noël’s feeling of frustration – that she could not express herself and have teammates listen during team meetings – was an unfortunate but manageable situation. Instead, it became an issue for her emotional and physical wellbeing.

Noël went from waking up energized, looking forward to having a great day working with great people, and finishing her day fulfilled to the opposite. As the situation continued, her expectations of Jan’s support steadily declined along with her experience. Noël stopped trusting Jan to help her, and her relationship quickly deteriorated and became detrimental. Today, Noël finds it a struggle to get up in the morning and find the energy to start the workday. The cost to her, the team, and the broader organization is high in terms of lost productivity, performance, and wellbeing. Fortunately for Jan, Noël, and the team, the early decline in team performance was quickly caught by Jan’s manager, Naomi.

Naomi, an experienced leader with a strong people sense, recognized the signs of people issues and stepped in. She knew Jan’s many strengths and that she had great purpose in her role as an engineering manager, but that Jan wasn’t always comfortable with relationship dynamics among her people. Naomi’s first step was to hold skip-level 1:1 meetings with everyone on Jan’s team. She quickly got a sense of the team dynamics and found a consistent pattern: as stress increased and people began sharing their emotional challenges with Jan, she disconnected.

Managers and employees are reluctant to talk about mental and emotional health at work. It continues to be the elephant in the room.

Naomi set up a call with Jan to discuss her team and their recent performance. Jan started by explaining all the performance metrics, the challenges she faced, and the skill issues she helped some team members overcome. After listening patiently, Naomi asked Jan about the strength of her relationship with her team. When Jan said she felt everything was ok, Naomi asked how she knew that was the case. When pressed further, Jan admitted being uncomfortable when people raised emotional issues with her. She told Naomi that she felt anxious and distressed because she didn’t know how to help them. So, it was easier to drop the topic and focus on the business.

With her understanding of Jan’s strengths, Naomi urged Jan to do something different to re-engage the team and create alignment. She recommended that Jan develop a framework for conversations with her team that would feel safe but didn’t ignore people’s emotional needs and wellbeing. With Naomi’s guidance, Jan decided her first step would be a values checkup with her team. It was an opportunity to ensure everyone’s values and expectations were aligned. The group agreed that people bringing their whole selves to work and feeling supported was vital for their success. To uphold this value, they all decided that having cameras on during video meetings would help them feel engaged – and feel as though the rest of the team were engaged, too. Jan also agreed that during her 1:1 conversations, having her camera on would help create a space for team members to share how they felt.

Immediately, Jan was able to pick up on physical cues and tones she’d missed before, and she started exploring what she sensed in the conversation by asking for additional context. Jan asked Naomi for ideas on how to best use the new information she was gathering. Naomi suggested using a simple framework to help each team member meet their core psychological needs at work – the ones that maximize their energy and enable them to thrive. Jan started working this framework into her meetings, consistently asking each person if they were finding purpose in their work and ensured they understood how it contributed to the team and organization. Over the next few weeks, Jan made sure that every person had a plan for the skills they wanted to develop and agreed on the level of support or freedom they would have given their role and skill set.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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  1. Thank you, Charlotte!

    I agree that in a work context is can be difficult to get managers comfortable with the idea that they should take on responsibility for people’s “mental and emotional health.” Those terms carry emotional weight and too often managers lack the courage or incentives to take them on. I find that it is effective to focus leaders on the behaviors that foster trust and well-being. And in parallel, sensitize people to the adverse consequences of incivility, low psychological safety, micro-aggressions and similar. Not perhaps ideal but for the many people affected by incivility and more it’s a start.

  2. This looks like a case seen again and again but exacerbated by the pandemic, Jeb.

    I feel some resistance to using the term “mental and emotional health” early in the process because what is really happening is incivility among coworkers who are not inclusive of a new colleague.
    Yes, such repeated behavior will in time likely lead to serious emotional issues, but to categorize the management training as “discussion of mental health” seems to me to contribute to not solving the problem. Addressing incivility among one’s team members is probably not even part of the half hour online training you refer to. But it is never the less a manager’s responsibility to look, listen, and address such issues. Preferably before they turn into mental health problems – or a lawsuit for toxic work environment.