November 14, 2023
‘How are you sleeping?’ And other leadership questions
Colleagues and constituents may signal important clues about their well-being when they mention the mundane, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
When people mention how they are sleeping, I perk up. They may be about to reveal something significant about their level of stress.
Yes, this could sound creepy. Inquiring about sleep habits is not part of my getting-to-know-you routine. I have been conducting interviews for several jobs lately. I don’t ask candidates how they’re resting.
When extending hospitality with event participants or guests in my home, however, I do ask. They might raise a concern about the environment — temperature or noise — that I can address. Most often, I congratulate those who are resting well and commiserate with those who are tossing and turning.
Outside of hosting and traveling, conversation about sleep is uncommon. But when the topic does come up, I start listening closely. I lean in further if people mention dreams. I am not a physician or a therapist, but when resting and dreaming come up, I sense that people are offering me a deeper glimpse into their lives.
Sleep patterns and dream narratives can reveal the depth of tension that a person is experiencing. A comment about sleep can reflect deeply troubling stress at home or work or church or in the neighborhood. It is a signal that I should be more attentive.
If I am the person’s pastor, I likely will ask questions about whom that person trusts to share dreams with.
If someone in the systems I lead is talking about disrupted sleep, I don’t try to interpret what is happening in that person’s soul. When my role is team leader, I listen for clues of the stress the person is experiencing. I explore what conditions are amplifying it.
If work is playing a role, I might offer suggestions on navigating the stress or offer to intervene in the situation. When I have leadership responsibility for the overall system, I consider the possible effect of what’s happening on everyone in the system, not just on the person speaking with me.
What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility? Do you pay attention to when people are responding to emails or whether they’re accepting appointments during scheduled vacations? Do you notice when people don’t turn on their cameras in video conferences or are continually checking messages during meetings?
When you pick up signs of stress, what can you as a leader do? Sometimes, I am a primary cause of the stress. Change is stressful, but it also can be necessary. Seldom can I make the stress go away. But I can always listen.
If a person is sharing about stress, I try to listen carefully and deeply. I do my best not to defend the organization or diminish the person’s experience. I acknowledge the difficulty of the situation.
If the conversation is mostly about work stress, I might point out factors that the person is not considering. I might apologize for the effect on the person. I might pledge to make changes. I might acknowledge the challenges and indicate that I don’t see improvement coming anytime soon.
Later, I will step back to examine the situation. I will listen to others. What is stressing the team? What is stressing me? How might those stresses be acknowledged or mitigated for everyone?
I don’t know of any tension-free places to live or work. Paying attention when people are sharing about the intensity of their stress is not the same as accepting responsibility for fixing it. People under stress may not want to surrender their agency; they may just be looking for acknowledgment. They may want to feel less alone. They may not know what they want.
Responding to the stress in people’s lives is balanced by an organization’s mission and the responsibility to follow through with its commitments and priorities. Leaders are responsible both for the mission of the organization and for the morale of the people. The same actions rarely achieve progress on both mission and morale. In fact, aiming for progress on both with the same actions might result in progress for neither. Leaders need to have in mind a mix of actions. When signs and symptoms of stress appear, leaders should consider putting more energy into the morale-lifting actions that are likely to alleviate the stress.
In the stories in Scripture, Jesus displayed a finely tuned sensibility to the stress in people’s lives — from the death of a loved one to not catching enough fish to feed the family. He also challenged religious leaders to pay more attention to God’s purposes. Jesus was not leading an organization, but he was on a mission. He tended to people while making progress toward Jerusalem. The stories that we have indicate that he knew how to help people take their next faithful steps in living.
In a world where everyone is carrying plenty of burdens, I recognize that I cannot work solely on my task list but must listen carefully to the stresses behind the stories that colleagues and constituents share. Listening in itself is not enough, but without it, I will not appreciate what is happening and consider adjustments that I can make.
How are you sleeping? How are your colleagues sleeping? How are your participants and constituents sleeping? What clues might we pick up by paying attention, and how can we respond?
What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility?