Leaders: Mindful Responses to Resentful Employees

Healing Resentment

The highest performing businesses have a leaders who are proficient at having difficult conversations within their organizations. 

In fact, we know that when they use mindful leadership techniques, there is a correlation with improved productivity.

Developing Mindful Responses to Resentful Employees

Utilizing Active Listening Skills

Active listening is comprised primarily of eliminating all distractions and giving the other person our full attention. As we give that attention, we are not devising our defense, retort or follow-up question while someone is talking.

By being fully present, we are taking in all verbal and non-verbal communication so that we can better choose the response that will benefit all the stakeholders in the process.

Behind Every Complaint Lies a Request

Complaining wastes energy and rarely solves the problem. Unfortunately, there are actually positive reinforcements for resentful employees that keep complaining alive.

People tend to bond with co-workers over perceptions of unfairness or being aggrieved.

Often, complaining comes from an angry place that has less to do with resolving a situation than from the positive reinforcement someone receives by displaying their anger.

Diffusing Anger

In these situations, we (as leaders) can subtly call these colleagues out by saying something like this:

“I can see that you’re very passionate about this issue and I’m glad we have the opportunity to do something about it together.”

This kind of response can diffuse anger by showing the employee that you’re actually on their side and are pleased that, like you, she wants to create a better environment in which to work.

This removes the anger from the complaint and transfers it into a request that will most certainly result in improved efficiency as well as a teachable moment for the employee.  It also takes a negative contributor to the organization’s culture and transitions them into a positive one.

As others see this, the employee’s resentful reputation changes for the better and (consciously or not) your reputation as an empowering leader improves.

Making Stuff Up

When people are provided with inaccurate or incomplete information, we make stuff up (MSU) to fill in the gaps that are usually incorrect.  MSUing creates two issues:

  • Resentment due to the lack of information; and
  • Additional work for the leader who must use more time and energy to correct the misperception.

An example of MSUing might be:

“They have enough money to give us raises but they’re paying all those executives huge bonuses with it.”

MSUing is perfectly natural for humans and we really can’t blame our employees for doing so.  The problem is that we don’t check out what we’re MSUing to see how close it is to objective reality.

Creating Solutions

So, how do we handle MSUing?

When we’re talking to our employees, we have to be mindful of their individual frames of reference.  We can’t have all our difficult conversations with resentful employees the same way.

Q: Is this person frequently playing the role of the victim?

If so, her MSUing will likely have a more paranoid flavor to it.

Q: Is this person historically a good performer who has only started to struggle with her performance recently?

Her MSUing may be a genuine attempt to more completely fill in those gaps with missing information so she can get back to the level of performance to which you and she are more accustomed.

Reinforcing Solutions

To reinforce the solution-focused partnership with her, ask the employee to gather feedback from others on the issue and you can do the same so that the focus stays on solving the problem and not on who’s right or wrong.

Also, be mindful of verbal communication:

  • Stay away from words like “always” and “never” because the other person will undoubtedly find the one exception to prove you wrong.
  • Watch out for other continuum-ending words like “awful”, “horrible”, and “terrible” and, if they are used, take that opportunity to put the issue on the table in perspective (e.g., “I think I’m going to die if I have to review my metrics one more time with my supervisor.”  “Really? You’re going to die? ”)

On the non-verbal side:

  • Be aware of your facial expressions;
  • If possible, come out from behind a desk so that it is not perceived as a barrier;
  • Maintaining eye contact throughout the conversation; and
  • Make sure your face is not conveying anger or displeasure.

Fear of Failing

As leaders we have the self-inflicted stress of looking competent to those with whom we have contact on a regular basis. However, we must be open to being wrong.

As we utilize our active listening skills, we open our minds to what the other person is saying and hopefully to the solutions that they will eventually bring to the table. If we are honest about how the best ideas come from those who actually do the work, then we need to walk the talk and prepare ourselves to be wrong (and to celebrate that!).

As mindful leaders who aren’t afraid to fail, we become more approachable because our employees feel as if their opinions actually count and their contribution is valuable. In turn, that diffuses their resentment and makes conversations more lateral than vertical which is exactly why some companies actually celebrate their failures.

Recalibrating Resentment

Each time we employ these techniques, our brains rewire themselves a little bit more and, what seems so difficult to do now, will come secondhand down the road (in the same way that piano and soccer got easier the more we practiced).

More importantly, we are now contributing to creating a mindful culture where most people are more interested in the organization’s success and their individual contribution than to more selfish agendas.

We must start with ourselves.

Our roles as leaders don’t infer that we are responsible for saving others from themselves in the context of difficult conversations.  It does mean that we try our best to change ourselves and coach others with humility and transparency with regard to our strengths and failures.

Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  • What opportunities do you have to improve your active listening when communicating with difficult employees?
  • How can you start to change your organization’s culture by making sure that complaints are converted into requests?
  • Do you give your employees a chance to check out their MSUing against reality?
  • As a leader in your organization, do you have permission to fail and utilize the teachable moments from those failures?


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Erik Engburg
Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
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Leadership Perspective: Not Just a New York State of Mind

Empire State BuildingAs I watched the coverage of the shooting around the Empire State Building last month, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the frightening Gallup poll results that were documented in the first chapter of Mindful Stress Solutions for Today’s Leaders.

It went like this:

  • 14% of workers feel like striking a coworker
  • A quarter feel like screaming or shouting because of job stress
  • One out of ten is concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent
  • Almost the same number are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace
  • Eighteen percent of those same respondents have experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

The alleged shooter, Jeffrey Johnson, had been fired from his job at least a year ago (details still coming in as I’m writing this) and fatally wounded a co-worker who may have been his boss at the company where Johnson had worked.

Turning Tragedy Into a Teachable Moment

  1. If a tenth of us are afraid that a colleague could actually become violent, we have an obligation as leaders to be fully immersed in the culture of our respective work places. Because it is natural for us to be concerned about how the image of our work environment reflects upon us as individual leaders, we can oftentimes choose to portray the culture of our business to others as better than it actually may be.
  2. Although there are no guaranteed strategies that could prevent a similar tragedy, there are steps we can take as leaders to lessen the risk.  For example, a former employer of mine went to great lengths to assist affected employees during a recent downsizing by providing job placement and other services that helped many to walk away with a less bitter taste in their mouths.
  3. It is critical that we build cultures of impermanence in today’s workplaces.  In this economy, it is financially suicidal not to constantly think five steps ahead of our customers and keep adapting our strategies, processes, work flows and training to align with where the market is heading.  That means we must constantly evaluate our organizations, from job applicant screening questions to coaching and colleague engagement efforts, to ensure that we view ongoing change as an indicator of a company’s success and of an individual’s job security.  In fact, the litmus test of this culture of impermanence is the presence of a large number of colleagues who view their employer’s lack of change as a possible indicator of future instability.

Building a Culture of Impermanence

As leaders, we oftentimes work very hard to calm the waters of uncertainty within our teams by portraying impermanence as the evil to be eliminated.

When change inevitably appears, it is hardly surprising that the stress levels of our workplaces increase exponentially and push the statistics mentioned earlier even higher.

We must work every day to help our teams to focus on their roles as they pertain to the overall sustainability of the larger organization.

In a prior Linked 2 Leadership post, I stated this:

Even with existing colleagues, we can adopt a culture of impermanence through training and the practice of mindful techniques.”

Within that paradigm, we need to make sure that we all understand that those roles will change over time and why those changes should be welcomed as a sign that our company’s top leadership is focused on staying ahead of the competition.

Communicating Change

Therefore, we must watch the language that we use with our colleagues and ensure that it aligns with this shifting culture.

As we design our PowerPoints and whiteboard diagrams, we must be mindful of how we box ourselves into roles and responsibilities that can mislead employees into thinking that there is no gray area.

In fact, we need to make sure that, to the extent possible, we stay very transparent about the likelihood of workplace impermanence (e.g., having a front-line worker responsible for communicating pending work-flow changes and gathering input to help peers feel that they are a part of the change process).

The Benefits of Proactive and Mindful Leadership

As with all proactive leadership, we have an opportunity to evaluate our individual and company’s preparedness for change.

We may never know the extent to which our efforts in this regard might possibly dissuade someone from causing harm to others but is the lack of tangible proof enough to keep us from, at the very least, taking another look at our work cultures?

It will be easy to chalk up the incident in New York as the violent act of a disgruntled ex-employee.  Mindful leadership reminds us that we have the ability to relieve the suffering of others by giving them options when responding to stressful situations.  Or as William James put it,

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  • What mechanisms do you have in place to evaluate the culture of your work-place? 
  • What is the template for taking action based on regular workplace culture assessments?
  • Do most of your employees yearn for stability vs. change? 
  • Do leaders in your organization understand the impact to stress levels by assuming stasis should be the cultural and colleague engagement default setting?
  • What are the teachable moments from well-publicized workplace violence events that can be applied to your business today and in the long term?


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Erik Engburg
Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
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Leadership Equanimity Through Self-Awareness

Self Awareness

Because our world requires such complex interaction and our brains are not naturally equipped to respond effectively to all that stimuli, human beings must adapt.

We must teach ourselves how to manage the stressors we face in an emotionally intelligent way so that we can be better leaders.

Responding to Emotions

By practicing how we respond to our emotions, we become the type of mindful and equananimous leaders that our colleagues choose to follow.

In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman discusses developing self-awareness within leaders as the “leadership paradox” because it requires us to connect with our personal values before we can lead anyone.

As leaders, we must understand at a deeply personal level exactly what drives us, how our emotions align with what we wish to accomplish with our teams and how those goals are translated into action.

As Goleman puts it:

“Self-awareness . . . is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even in the midst of turbulent emotions.”

Not surprisingly, this requires us to be mindful of those feelings and physical states that drive our behavior.

Foundation of Self-Awareness

Bringing our attention to our emotions is the foundation of self-awareness

Mindfully becoming aware of each emotion (“Right now, I’m feeling angry”) tees-up the succeeding steps.  Next, we pull those emotions apart to see what’s underneath.

By taking one feeling and peeling away its layers we will inevitably see more fundamental root-level emotions.

And by paying attention to them, we then can start addressing the broader impact to ourselves and our teams.

Like many, I have held on to anger and allowed it to bleed into my interactions at work and home.  A colleague may not come through effectively on a deadline and, rather than mindfully responding to that emotion, I allowed my anger to carry over to conversations with other work colleagues and even brought it home with me, resulting in being clipped in exchanges with my family.

Breaking it Down

I have had to learn how to pay attention to that emotion in that moment and break it into pieces.

For example, I might be able find fear lurking behind my anger.

I’m dependent on this colleague to be successful and, if they don’t come through, my job may be at risk.

Or resentment,

Why doesn’t she share my sense of urgency on this project?

By mindfully attending to these sub-emotions and challenging their root, we begin to own our emotions and they begin to change.

With practice of self-awareness (yes – awareness can be a learned trait), we become able to more objectively observe and respond the emotion rather than be consumed by it.

Being Aware in the Present

By being aware (mindful) of the present moment, we bring greater attention to what we are feeling. 

The goal is not to eliminate the emotion but to be aware of it.  Sometimes, being aware of the root emotion is enough to lessen its impact but oftentimes that awareness has no effect or actually strengthens it.  That’s OK.

The goal is merely to bring attention to the emotion without the burden of eradicating it. 

As we practice being mindful of these emotions, we become more adept at understanding their origin and thereby minimizing their impact.

As a result, we can lessen their unintended consequences on our ability to lead effectively.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like anything we do, this gets easier with practice. 

Consistent awareness to our emotional attachments and their unintended consequences can lead to deeper analysis.  You may even find yourself intentionally digging into your personal vault of emotions and peeling them back in order to pay attention to their sub-emotions.

This is the work that starts to rewire ourselves so that we may begin to neurologically build new pre-frontal cortex pathways that provide healthier choices for us.

Confronting Emotions

It’s heady stuff, so tread carefully. 

Confronting emotions that are the foundations of our personalities (e.g., judgment of others, low self-esteem, loneliness, the need to be perfect) can be draining but the reward is being able to lessen our suffering, as noted mindfulness author Pema Chodron writes in Getting Unstuck (2005).

Chodron compares this self-awareness practice with having scabies,

“scratching the itch of discomfort provides only temporary relief but spreads the disease.”

In other words, we must dig into what’s behind what we’re feeling if we want to move away from short-term relief (scratching) for long-term relief (no itch).

Exploring Emotions

But we have to be willing to do the work. 

Chodron calls it “shenpa” (the Tibetan word for attachment) and highlights how we get hooked and consequently stuck on thoughts that affect our behavior long after the catalyst has passed.

She points out that we need to explore these emotions that hook us and that will lead us to self-awareness.

But don’t start there.  We have enough work to do right now with those daily examples that are getting in the way of our ability to lead with equanimity.

As we peel back our emotional layers, we expose those basic feelings and beliefs that are at the root of many of our leadership barriers.

Modeling New Behaviors

With our newfound recognition, we may start to model a new behavior for those we lead.

In situations where displays of anger have traditionally been the norm, they are replaced with demonstrations of calm and, over time, our colleagues learn the benefits of choosing more equananimous responses when confronted with work-related stressors.

  • How do your emotions drive your leadership decisions?
  • Can you think of a time when you didn’t recognize how your reaction to your emotions led to poorer-than-expected outcomes?
  • What kinds of reflective opportunities exist for you to practice being aware of how your emotional reactions drive behavior in your workplace?
  • Do your direct reports have a tendency to mirror your emotional reactions?  If yes, is there opportunity to practice being more self-aware in order to model equanimity to your teams?
  • What specific steps can you start taking today?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Erik Engburg
Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | 412.477.5469

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Painful Leadership Lessons

Pain and Suffering

Because of a disease called Avascular Necrosis, I had both of my hips replaced when I was in my early forties.  When replacing my left hip, a specific type of prosthesis was used to help stabilize me so that I could supposedly rehab more easily. 

Risky Business

Included in the many risks of this type of surgery, the use of this type of prosthesis opened me up (pun intended) to a 1 in 3,000 risk of having chronic pain post-surgically.

I guess I should have gone to Las Vegas rather than to that operating room because I beat those odds and have been living with often-crippling and ongoing pain in my left knee, thigh, hip and my coccyx for well over ten years.

The Treatment and Leadership Rehab

After two years of frustration and what seemed like an infinite number of referrals and treatments, I had to give up looking for “cure” for my pain. Doctors, including the head of Orthopedic Reconstruction Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, advised me to start learning how to live with my pain and abandon my search for a permanent fix.

Ever since then, I have expanded my mindfulness practice as a way to get closer to the Buddhist saying,

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

During this life transition, I have found myself incorporating many of the lessons I have learned into my leadership style.

Learning From Pain

On an individual basis, I utilize almost exactly the same lessons that Kate Bartolotta describes in her post Eight Things I Learned From Pain.   Along with the terrific medical care I receive from my pain management doctor, I have been able to manage a level of pain that can incapacitate many.

I have learned the lessons of impermanence first hand through my efforts to get through each moment of pain and translated them into techniques of mindful change management for myself and my work colleagues.

Specifically, understanding that nothing is permanent has helped me to help others understand that change, like pain, is inevitable but suffering is indeed optional.

On Honesty and Control

As my teams and I peel back the layers of corporate culture impermanence, we have to be honest about those components over which we have control and, more importantly, those we do not.

Without that understanding, we can not lead those on the front lines who demand stability in an unstable environment.

While my pain is oftentimes exacerbated by my own actions (e.g., doing too much), it also has a nasty habit of flaring up for seemingly no reason as if to remind me that it can never be completely controlled.

In that same way, business leaders have to learn that, no matter the effort put forth by themselves and their direct reports, change (pain) is not always under their control.

Getting Through It

In order not to suffer:

We have to learn the lessons of impermanence and understand how to respond to the attending emotions of change rather than simply reacting in a non-productive way.

This obviously is a painful process (again, pun intended!) and is an ongoing one that must account for the skeptics and naysayers. Believe it or not, those Debbie Downers find positive behavioral and emotional reinforcement by inviting further pain into their lives.

Demanding permanence from management is looked upon by one’s peers as a reasonable expectation regardless of the suffering that undoubtedly follows when ongoing change comes down the pike.

However, your leadership team can learn quickly, as mine has, that the inevitability of impermanence has to become the culture in your organization in such a way that, in its absence, the team becomes concerned when further change is late in arriving!

Ongoing Follow-Up

Living with pain has changed my life.  I have become much more patient, less judgmental and an infinitely better listener and leader who can help businesses realize the long term gain and ROI that results from the utilization of mindful leadership techniques.

Don’t get me wrong – if Aladdin comes along tomorrow with the magic lamp, I’m ready for my pain to go away!  However, the mindful lessons of impermanence I’ve learned have become the gifts that my pain has brought to me.

By sharing with others and, by recalling these lessons during our particularly “painful” episodes, we can more easily move from suffering to living!

  • What form does your pain take and what lessons can you learn from it that applies to your role as a leader? 
  • How can you mindfully recognize those moments when your suffering or the suffering of your team is a barrier to moving forward? 
  • What are the strategies you can employ to become “unstuck” in those moments? 
  • What are some similar barriers that team members have learned to overcome that you can leverage in training that will help others recognize the impermanence of painful moments regardless of whether or not they are controllable?


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Erik Engberg

Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions 
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
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Managing Boss-Related Stressors


Most leadership development articles focus on our relationship between ourselves and those who report to us.  Much less attention is focused on how to manage stressors that affect the dynamic with our boss.

One of the greatest challenges of managing the stressors with our boss is understanding that s/he often holds the key to our ability to move up in the company.

It’s hard NOT to pay attention to that!

So as we examine the challenges of managing the stressors in our relationship with our supervisor, we must be mindful of that dynamic.

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Common Stressors

How to gain the respect and support of our boss is a common stressor.

Q: question

How can we utilize our leadership mindfulness to reduce the stress of this critical relationship?

A: answer

By being aware that his/her approval of us is important, we can ask ourselves some fundamental questions about the relationship.

Understanding Time

Working long hours is a default strategy of many up-and-coming leaders who want to push their way up the occupational ladder. However, more and more executives are beginning to understand that maintaining an appropriate work/life balance reduces stress and keeps happy employees stable in their roles.

By working 60+ hours per week, we are indicating to our boss that this is acceptable and are committing to that type of schedule going forward. One of our greatest stressors can be our perception that “there just aren’t enough hours in the day” to do everything that our boss expects us to do.

Time is the stressor with which we wrestle most often.

We often blame “feeling stressed” on not having enough time. In mindfulness practice, we learn about the impermanence of so many things – joy, love, jealousy, even life! There are so few permanent things that when they reveal themselves we must pay attention to them (e.g., gravity!). Time is permanent. There are always twenty-four hours in a day so the phrase “there aren’t enough hours in the day” is an oxymoron.

Clearly the issue is more about how the time is spent.

Working Smarter

More questions…

  • So, if working smarter is valued more than working longer, what else can we pay attention to that will reduce the stress of the boss-employee relationship?
  • If you are one of many direct reports to your boss, how do you stand out among the crowd and why is that important to do?
  • Are you willing to take on the tougher challenges when the opportunities present themselves or are you content with fitting in?

Above all else, your boss wants you to help him/her to be successful and hopefully, in turn, the company.

Mindfully assessing your willingness to step up in the face of risk is usually a key to creating a level of respect needed to reduce stress in that relationship.

As we pay attention to how we feel about taking risks, we can ask ourselves questions that will help us decide how to proceed:

  • If I take on this project and fail, what impact will it have on my relationship with my boss?  Is my self-confidence where it needs to be to be successful with this project? How transparent can I be about these self-confidence issues with my boss?  In his terrific article, 10 Rules to Manage Your Boss, Jacque Horovitz discusses how trust is built with your boss by managing expectations and not biting off more than you can chew.
  • Do I feel my boss supports me? If not, what do I base that feeling on? Is that the best way of judging his/her confidence in my abilities? What am I choosing to do with these feelings?
  • When was the last time I asked for feedback from my boss? What am I afraid s/he might say? How will I feel if those things are said and what will I do with that information?

Mindful Leaders

I have observed many mindful leaders with high emotional intelligence describe themselves as “processors” or “analyzers”.  Regardless of the label, self-awareness (as per Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence) is a critical indicator of mindfulness in leadership.

Understanding your style of leadership and how it differs from that of your boss, allows us to explore those variances and, in the best case scenario, both you and s/he can explore how to manage those variances transparently so both of you can drive positive results for the company.

At the very least, leading in equanimity allows us to be aware of the differences in all interactions so that we can better manage any resulting stressors.

Finally, we must pay attention to how our work is aligned with the vision of our boss.

The Boss’ Vision

Being mindful on this level includes asking ourselves how each task we complete promotes our boss’s vision and, if the answer is unclear, we can respond to that stressor by checking in with the boss for better understanding.

Not only will this ensure that we are using our time wisely but also reminds your boss of your commitment to the vision for the company.

Final questions…

  • What strengths do you and your boss share and how can you leverage that overlap?
  • To what extent can you be transparent and demonstrate vulnerability with your boss?  What solid evidence led you to that conclusion and what are the risks you haven’t taken in your relationship with your boss (e.g., offering input that may be at odds)?
  • Do you proactively request performance feedback from your boss and genuinely utilize it in a way that demonstrates value to the company?  Is your boss aware that you routinely seek this type of feedback from others, including peers and direct reports?
  • What do you expect from your direct reports that you could improve in your own performance?  Does your boss now and support your ongoing development goals as a leader?  Do you know what your boss’s development goals are and your role in supporting them?
  • When your frustration with your boss hits critical mass, how do you mindfully observe your stressors in a detached manner that gives you enough distance to work on solutions?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Erik Engberg is the Founder of Mindful Solutions 
Erik specializes in mindful leadership online solutions and consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook |  Twitter | Web | Blog | 412.477.5469

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