Don’t Walk on Eggshells – Stop Fragilizing & Start Leading

Dr. John Townsend

January 22, 2015

Have you ever walked on eggshells around someone, been over concerned about how bad they will feel if you give them bad news, or avoided constructive confrontations as a leader?  If you have done any of these, are “fragilizing”, and it will hinder your leadership power.

Fragilizing is the tendency to treat another person as if they are brittle and easily derailed, thus a “fragile” person.  The result of this attitude  is that leaders do not bring important truths to their directs about performance problems, attitudes, goal issues and cultural meltdowns.  Problems don’t get solved, and the person is actually done no favors. He becomes, actually, more defensive, disempowered, in denial or entitled.  And your mandate is decelerated, not accelerated.  Fragilizing is a common leadership problem, and it is destructive to your goals.  Here are some tips to help you move toward a healthier engagement with those in your organization.

  •  Own the problem.   The person you are walking on eggshells around is not the problem, it is some trigger inside your head. Spend less time worrying about how to say something “just right” so they won’t be disappointed, and spend more figuring out where your tendency came from (family of origin?  an important person in your life?  School?  Church?  Another organization?).  This will give you more reality, so that you are not so worried.  A leader should never harm anyone, but she must hurt people (that is, bring them out of their comfort zone) on a regular basis.  The more you own this, the better your behavior will become.
  • Draw the line.  There is a big difference between someone who is fragile, and someone who is sensitive or reactive.  A truly fragile person simply cannot handle tough realities, and literally falls apart.  I’m talking about nervous breakdowns, not being able to get out of bed to go to work the next morning because they are clinically depressed,  or having to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility.  As a psychologist, I have dealt with many fragile people, and, even if they want to hear hard truths, they are too damaged to hear them, and need intensive healing over time.  A sensitive or reactive person, however, has deep feelings and may get upset easily, but he can still rally, adapt, function, perform and stabilize his feelings.  So draw a line between the two. Sensitive and reactive people need to be understood, but they also need to take responsibility for the sensitivity and work on it themselves.  To give them special treatment because they have emotional reactions is not a good thing in an organization. Point this out and offer resources:  HR, a book, counseling or a support group.  Sometimes, simply being aware of the tendency is enough for the person.
  • Think about how you respond to negative realities.  When someone gives you bad news, disappoints or confronts you, how do you  yourself handle it?  When the fast food restaurant didn’t have your french fries, did you drive off a cliff or have to take off  work for the rest of the day?  Of course not.  You were disappointed, had some bad feelings, then adapted and found another way to behave.  In other words, you were resilient.  If you can handle negative realities, so can they.
  • Respect others enough to give them the truth.  Simply put, telling the truth means “I respect you that you can handle this.”  No directness means “I don’t respect you and think you’re weak.”
  • Make healthy confrontation one of your cultural norms.  High performing organizations are supportive, productive and also confrontative with each other.  They simply tell the truth directly, but with warmth and no harshness.  Simply start doing this behavior, several times a week, in your sphere of influence.  You will find that people respond well, perform better, and best of all, feel empowered to not fragilize those who are also reporting to them.  Build the muscle of telling the truth as simply “what we do” in your organization.  Let it become viral.

Fragilizing in leadership is resolved by simply treating people as adults:  kind, warm but direct and to the point. This works. For more info, my and Henry Cloud’s book How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding is a good resource as well.

Best to your leadership.



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