“I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out a good professional goal for my engineering manager. Do you have any ideas?” asked Eliza (not her real name) in her monthly Executive Coaching session with Empowering Partners. Eliza is the vice-president of engineering in a mid-size manufacturing firm. She wants to provide her direct-reports and department the headspace for growth and safety so that they all experience greater fulfillment, collaboration and innovation.

The firm has found that their training and leadership development efforts are more successful when based on the insights gained from working with the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®).

The IDI assesses a person’s ability level to successfully engage in conversation with people representing diverse opinions. In terms of cultural intelligence, IDI has found that individuals and groups fall into one of five core mindsets: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance or Adaptation.(1)

Eliza is a leader currently in the mindset of Acceptance. That means she…

  • Has a deepening understanding that each person’s experience is unique to them;
  • Recognizes each person’s inherent dignity;
  • Is curious about people’s differences and commonalities and is able to withhold judgment;
  • Feels unsure of what to do or say;
  • Is open to discovering more approaches for engaging with people.(1)

Eliza was unsure of how to help her engineering manager (let’s call him Tom) develop a professional goal that would be meaningful for him as well as support a safe working environment for his colleagues. So I asked her to notice and name a feeling she has about his behavior that was not contributing to the productivity of his department.

“What does Tom do that is unproductive, maybe even annoying?” I asked Eliza.

VP: “He complains to both his colleagues and me about all his stress.”

AN: “Is he aware of how much he’s complaining about his stress?”

VP: “Not that I can tell.”

AN: “It sounds like he is unaware of how he’s impacting others, and equally unaware of how burdened he feels.”

VP: “Probably. Likely, actually.”

AN: “What could he do differently?”

VP: “Delegate.”

AN: “How’s that?”

VP: “He’s a likeable manager but he takes on too much himself. He has a team, and we also have an engineering firm overseas to support efforts that he’s not utilizing well.”

AN: “Have you told him?

VP: “I’m not sure what to say.”

AN: “You can 1) share your observation of his behavior and 2) ask him how he thinks his behavior might be impacting the people around him.”

VP: “That’s something I can do.”

AN: “Absolutely. What’s helpful about the mindset of acceptance is you’re already able to appreciate his good intentions and contributions to the department. You’re also able to feel annoyed about his behavior and at the same time withhold your judgment until you get more information. This is good because a direct report is often more able to hear criticism when you share your observation of their behavior rather than sharing your opinion about them as a person. At the same time, your growth opportunity and challenge are to try things and figure out the best course of action for him.”

What to do first

To give her a clear sequence for this, I explained, “The first step is to listen to your gut, notice and name your feelings. If you’ll recall, I asked you to first consider what he does that’s annoying. That feeling can point out something that needs to change. In this case, it did; your feeling pointed to the fact that his complaining was a burden to you and his colleagues.

Second step

The second step is to meet with him and share your observation of his behavior. You might say to him something like, ‘Each time we’ve spoken in the last few weeks, I’ve heard you talk about your stress levels. I’m worried about you. What’s going on there?’ Because you’ve pointed out his unproductive behavior, he’ll likely want to justify what’s happening. It’s important that you hear him out and affirm his feelings and experience as valid, even if you don’t agree with what he’s been doing.

“Just so you know, if you don’t affirm his experience as valid, he’ll get defensive and close himself off. To keep him open to learning and growing, you’ll use the inclination of your acceptance mindset to affirm and validate his experience. Because he feels valued and heard, he’ll have the headspace to talk about next steps.

Third step

The third step is to provide tools to help him take responsibility for his own growth. You might say, ‘I’d like to help you formulate a goal that helps you become more aware of your own feelings and actions and the impact they have your colleagues.’”

People don’t typically intend to burden others; they are more often unaware of the burden they’re feeling and how they’re inadvertently transmitting it to others. That’s because, without self-awareness, there is often an…

  1. Incongruence between our feelings and our nonverbal communication and an
  2. Inability to see how we’re impacting others.

To remedy this and create even more headspace for Tom to become aware of his feelings and actions, I suggested a tool to help him – a spreadsheet where he could track his emotions for 2-3 weeks and see what insights arise. To keep it simple, he dates the entry and three times a day – at 8 am, Noon and 3 pm – writes down how he feels (sad, glad, mad, scared or energized). In the last space or column, he writes any insights or questions that come to mind. Helping Tom to slow down and begin to notice his feelings provides not only personal headspace but also communicates the employee’s mental well-being is important to the organization’s overall well-being.

About mental health at work

Even before Covid, research revealed that employees expected managers to care about their emotional wellbeing. Before the pandemic, 1 in 10 Americans had symptoms of depression. Since then, the rate of mental illness had quadrupled.(2)

Many people believe that whatever their mental health challenges are, those challenges don’t belong in the workplace. However, more than 100 studies have shown that, when we have low psychological well-being, or face depression or general anxiety, our job productivity suffers.(3)

Of course, clinical depression and anxiety often require professional help. But we’ve all had moments of feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from other people, from our own values or from hope about the future. These emotions affect us in our jobs and they affect our colleagues. A leader’s compassion is no longer above and beyond, it’s vital to the organization’s culture of well-being.(4)

When a boss acknowledges a direct report’s pain and expresses compassion to alleviate that pain in a way that is meaningful for them, that’s cultural intelligence at work. Cultural intelligence is what enables us to accept others’ humanity and adapt our behavior to create an environment where our employees feel valued, heard and engaged. It also helps us to bust the belief that we should be immune to emotional and cognitive struggle and if only we try hard enough, the struggle will go away.

What happened

Eliza told me she shared her observation with Tom. She described the behavior she’d been seeing and told him she was worried about him and the impact he was having on his colleagues. She asked him to track his emotions and look for opportunities to delegate. After several weeks, Eliza noticed Tom had stopped complaining and was noticing opportunities to hand off some of his work. She told me her own and his efforts were worth it because he is more productive, feels valued and heard and is more supportive of his colleagues.

By accepting her direct report’s pain, rather than belittling or ignoring it, and providing a tool to help him become more aware and accepting of himself and his impact on others, Elliza was respecting his struggle and building trust. She is also creating a culturally safe and intelligent work environment for everyone.

Three-day challenge

Using a head, heart and hands approach, we can develop the self-awareness that allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, as well as increase engagement, collaboration and innovation in our individual conversations and collective culture. For three consecutive days, notice, observe and experience the impact of Acceptance. Here’s how:

  1. HEAD: Observe what thoughts, words and actions correlate with the mindset of Acceptance.
    • Under what circumstances do you notice your curiosity about differences and commonalities people have?
    • Under what circumstance do you particularly notice that you’re unsure of what to do to build a bridge of understanding with another person?
    • What is said and done that makes you notice?
  2. HEART: Notice and name the feelings of yourself and others when there is acceptance.
    • How do you feel appreciating your own and others’ uniqueness and being able to withhold judgment until you have more information?
    • What was particularly heartbreaking or moving when you didn’t know what to do or say?
    • Under what conditions do you feel you can take a risk and try a course of action and see how it goes?
  3. HANDS: Now that you have reflected on acceptance and its impact on you and others, consider what actions you take to show the respect you feel.
    • What words and actions do you already use that help you show genuine respect for another’s experience?
    • Under what conditions do you feel safe taking a risk and trying different ways to engage with others?
    • What policies or practices need to be put in place in your home, community or workplace that allow people to share different perspectives and struggles so that they feel valued and heard?    –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Panchal, N. Kamal, R., Cox, C (Feb 10, 2021) “The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use,” KFF: https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/
  3. Ford, M., Cerasoli, C., Higgins, J. & Decesare, A. (May 7, 2021) “Relationships between psychological, physical, and behavioural health and work performance: A review and meta-analysis,” Work & Stress: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/twst20/current
  4. Toegel, G, Kilduff, M & Anand, N. (May 7, 2021) “Emotion helping by managers: An emergent understanding of discrepant role expectations and outcomes,” Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 56, No. 2: https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2010.0512
  5. Photo credit: Jonathan Daniels: https://unsplash.com/photos/78Fr6nZRDIc

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