Good Mentors Help You work Through Strong Emotions

by Kenneth Andersson* – HBR

When I was 25, during my annual review my (male) boss confirmed lots of positive things, such as how I exceeded my $26 million goal in sales. But he ended the meeting with his one big negative: “You need to smile more.” I was stunned. He explained that all the senior executives perceived my lack of smiling negatively.

Admittedly, I was rather intense and competitive early in my career, but apparently this smiling thing could derail my next promotion. At the time I didn’t realize that as a professional woman I was facing a classic double-bind dilemma — the trade-off women encounter where they can be perceived as either warm or competent, but not both.

The problem was I didn’t have anyone to talk to about this situation. I needed someone to help me process this feedback, put it into context, and figure out a way forward. I needed a mentor, coach, or friend who could create a safe space to provide what researchers call holding behaviors.

Boston University’s Bill Kahn introduced managers to the idea of holding environments as a nurturing space to allow adults who experience strong emotions that are “disturbing, upsetting, or anxiety provoking” to safely interpret and express them. Researchers suggest a developmental network, more commonly known as a board of personal advisers, can provide this function for developing leaders at work. Recently, Belle Rose Ragins of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and colleagues found that holding behaviors provided by a mentor at work can buffer the effects of ambient racial discrimination — “the knowledge or awareness of discrimination aimed at others in the workplace.”For those of us looking to support our valued colleagues, there are three holding behaviors needed to create this safe space.

Containment. Be present to create space for your colleague to slow down and process what happened. Ask questions to help them share emotions, have compassion, and be accessible. This first step is essential to ensure that your colleague does not act impulsively. (Often the first reaction to an upsetting situation or to any negative feedback may not be the most productive.)

Empathetic acknowledgment. Provide empathy and validation that enhances the person’s positive sense of self and enables them to function during times of high stress. Empathy requires the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and to validate their experience. This is particularly important when that experience is shocking or has the person questioning their sense of self.

Enabling perspective. Help the person make sense of the situation and interpret it in order to take appropriate action. They may need to take action individually or to build a coalition of support. Your role is to support them in making effective choices.

At this historic time in our workplaces, when women and men are finding the courage to come forward with their challenging experiences, let each of us find the courage in ourselves to learn to hold space for our coworkers, mentees, and friends. We owe it to each other to learn these skills and help one another move forward to create environments where we are all valued and respected.


*Wendy Murphy is an associate professor of management at Babson College and author of Strategic Relationships at Work.