Leading Through Emotional Tremors

A person leaning against a mirror showing their reflection.

I’m not sure how ready I am to talk about the work experiences from my past that I consider traumatic. Researching for this article has surfaced some stuff that I thought I’d dealt with but that I think I’m still working through, things from as far back as ten to fifteen years ago. So, there won’t be much juicy gossip here.

Perhaps the best place to start is to acknowledge that workplace trauma is real. What makes it particularly insidious I think is that for me at least, it is often unintentional or accidental. Like being cc’d on an email you weren’t supposed to see where many people are discussing some ‘issue’ related to you that you know nothing about.

If you’ve never worked in a toxic workplace before you may not understand just how impactful it can be on your psyche and how long-term the effects can be. Or maybe you’re the one contributing toxicity without even knowing it. 

When we’re serious about wanting our teams to bring their full authentic selves to work, we have to be willing to accept the challenges along with the opportunities. Life and people are messy. Authenticity is messy because it’s real. 

This article isn’t about the trauma itself, it’s really about the aftermath. Those of us in leadership, whether we want to or not, will be on the receiving end of the emotional tremors that happen amongst our team. I thought I’d use my personal experience to help shape some thinking on how we can navigate these tremors when they happen.

Defining Emotional Tremors

Because of past workplace experiences, I live with the constant paranoia and anxiety that the leaders above me are regularly critiquing me and my work and developing negative opinions about me. As a result, if I don’t hear from my manager throughout the week, I can go into my next one-on-one expecting to be let go or face some other corrective action.

That’s an emotional tremor. 

It has no basis in reality (especially now) but the trauma of my past has conditioned my psyche to the point where I have to expend a lot of additional emotional energy to overcome that anxiety and rediscover the truth. 

To be even more candid, I had this experience in just the last few weeks. I went into a meeting with my manager expecting the worst only to be confronted with positive feedback. My past experience had warped my sense of things.

A woman holding a record.

Emotional tremors, at least how I define them, are uncontrolled and disruptive reactions to my current reality based on past negative experiences, regardless of the facts. 

Their manifestation can be anything from a panic attack to lack of sleep, self-isolation, and many other physical and emotional responses

As a people leader, I think it’s important to acknowledge that not every work environment is healthy. Rather than hiding from our past experiences, I think recognizing their impact on how we think and work can be truly transformational for our direct reports. 

With this in mind, we are better equipped to do what we can to make our working relationships with our direct reports a safe space to call out when we’re experiencing emotional tremors.

We Start By Acknowledging Emotional Tremors Are Real

For new hires, this type of conversation is likely easier as there is no history to work from. For an existing team with a bit of history, it’ll be more (or less) challenging depending on your level of comfort with each other and the psychological safety of the relationships you’ve been cultivating.

When I joined StellarWP for example, for the first time in my working life, I went in more open and transparent about my successes and failures in work than with any other role. I think that has helped me to be more honest about my strengths and weaknesses with my manager (who is awesome) and about the tremors that I can still experience.

One of the first things I did after joining Stellar was to create a personal readme. A collection of notes about me, my working style, what gives me energy and what my philosophy on leadership is. My manager also had one so it made it a lot easier to navigate working styles and potential triggers for emotional tremors. 

With direct reports, finding a non-confrontational and safe way to begin conversations that acknowledge past work experiences can be challenging. I’ve found that group experiences, carefully facilitated, can be a safer way to open these conversations than one-on-one. 

For example, getting together to create/review/update our team’s working agreements are one way to surface those work experiences that can trigger emotional tremors. The team setting and lack of overly specific examples are less confrontational and can be safer for this kind of disclosure. 

One of the questions we often ask in these sessions is ‘what are some of the negative or unhelpful behaviours you’ve experienced in a team’? I’ll be the first to acknowledge that for me, this is an open invitation to mitigate the risk of my current team doing the things that made a previous experience toxic and traumatic. 

If there’s something really specific or that visibly moves a team member, I’ll take note of it for further one-on-one follow-up. 

Eventually, I think it’s important to take these conversations into a one-on-one setting. However, it’s not something to surprise a direct report with. In fact, for this type of conversation, I’m very intentional about informing my direct report about the content of the meeting and giving them at least a week with the agenda to emotionally prepare for the discussion.

The goal isn’t to go through all their past mistakes or bad experiences but to come together to build a working relationship where trust and psychological safety can grow. To do that, we want to avoid things that can trigger emotional tremors. 

Once we’ve had a bit of a kickoff conversation I’ll bring a few pre-packaged questions to our ongoing one-on-ones to check in. I add these to an agenda at least a day or two before a one-on-one so that there’s ample time for my direct report to process and reflect on the questions and get some sleep before having to actually answer. 

When You Encounter Emotional Tremors

Inevitably, as people leaders, we’ll end up in a situation where we’ve triggered an emotional tremor with a direct report or something has occurred (or not occurred) that triggers an emotional tremor. How deep into the working relationship we are and how much time we’ve been able to devote to this topic can determine our collective ability to identify and respond to the emotional tremor.

What I mean by this is that not everyone has the language or experience to know that what they’re experiencing is an emotional tremor. Many of us, myself included, just react. It hits us and our thoughts and emotions start going and we don’t even realize we’re experiencing a tremor until we’ve said or done something to fix or remove us from the situation.

Even then, if we haven’t got support and trust from our people leaders to process these experiences together, we’re alone to manage the aftermath. 

As a people leader, knowing that emotional tremors can happen, regardless of whether your team is aware of them and being proactive at supporting a direct report through a tremor can be an incredibly powerful way to build trust and deepen psychological safety.

So just what do you do when an emotional tremor happens and you know it’s happening or you’ve been told it’s happening? I don’t have all the answers but I’ll try to describe to you what helps me. 

First, we need to break the circuit that is feeding energy to the emotional tremor. If a direct report is reacting to a situation in a way that is uncharacteristic, do what you can to pause or stop the situation. This can be tabling a discussion, excusing your team member, etc.

We won’t always be able to control an emotional tremor but if we can help our team to avoid an outsized emotional reaction, I think it’s important that we try. De-escalating has to become our top priority. We want to minimize the relational or team-dynamic damage without embarrassing or blaming anyone. 

Separate Truth From Fiction

To do this we have to separate truth from fiction. For me, my emotional tremors are the result of past experiences shaping current circumstances. With your direct report, it’s important to understand what data they’re using to inform their emotions. When we are able to stop the false narrative in our heads, hopefully, we can stop the emotional tremor.

As an example, I thought for sure that I had not been doing enough work on a specific project and was sure that when I got together with my manager they were going to challenge me on it. I’d worked myself up pretty good about it too. When I got into the meeting, I said that this was how I was feeling. Their response was to let me know that I had done something others hadn’t been able to do yet and they were really happy with the momentum as a result.

I’d built up a fiction in my mind about my performance that was based on my own perception and needed to realign around the truth to overcome the emotional tremor.

When processing an emotional tremor, two is often better than one.

Two Is Better Than One

I’m much better at knowing when I’m experiencing an emotional tremor because I’ve taken the time to try and understand what triggers them. It’s really hard though. Having someone to ask me about them and walk alongside me as I try to figure it out has been really helpful but that doesn’t need to be my people leader. 

It’s worth noting that I’ve done some training and taken counselling courses so my foundation for these conversations and my toolbox is likely different from yours. If you’re not comfortable navigating these things with your direct report, having a plan and some resources for them can be just as helpful. 

A lot of us work in small WordPress companies so our resourcing can be limited. However, a few things you might want to consider are:

  1. An employee assistance program (EAP) to provide 24-hour counselling support to your company.
  2. A mental health first aid course for your management or executive team and a designated first responder.
  3. A local counsellor or service you can recommend.

Once we can separate truth from fiction we can start to look for the markers or signals that contributed to the fiction. It could be a specific word or phrase that someone used, someone’s tone in an interaction, lack of inclusion in an email thread or meeting, etc. 

Working alongside your direct report to identify these triggers can build awareness for both of you that can help minimize future tremors. Equipped with this knowledge we can also begin to repair any damage done to the team dynamic and adjust any working agreements to make sure we can move forward together.

Wrapping It Up

I won’t pretend to be an expert in this or claim that this approach is the perfect solution, I’m still figuring it all out. However, I wanted to acknowledge it publicly and perhaps give you and your team permission to have a conversation about it. 

As I’ve said previously, being open to a conversation is not the same as proactively giving permission to something specific. So, if this is what you need to have a conversation with your manager or kickstart a conversation in your team about past work trauma, awesome. 

If you’re keen to dive deeper into this conversation, I’m around too. I’d be happy to chat about my own experiences and how I’m navigating all of this. Find me on all the socials or come hang out with me at a WordCamp (like WCUS 2022, I’ll be there).