3 rules for leadership in the era of endless anxiety

Coping with the parade of bad news and increasingly complex social norms served atop the day job of being a tech leader can be stressful. Here are Patrick Gray's rules for management.

Calm female executive meditating taking break avoiding stressful job

Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled Sending Smiley Emojis? They Now Mean Different Things to Different People. The article recently appeared in the "A-Hed" section, usually reserved for offbeat or amusing content that brings some lightness to a paper devoted to serious news. The emoji article was written in A-Hed's typical irreverent style and deployed some hackneyed "back in my day"-type generational tropes, yet had several quotes from people who seemed legitimately concerned that they might send the wrong emoji to a younger colleague or family member. I was a bit dismayed to discover that the smiley face and exhausted face, typical tools in my emoji arsenal since I'm loathe to scroll through the dozens of options–some of which apparently now indicate sarcasm and sexual interest.

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I doubt the author of the piece was aiming for much beyond some laughs and eye rolls. However, worrying about hidden emoji meanings seems like yet another straw on the backs of leaders who need to concern themselves with everything from fraught debates about vaccines, to remembering preferred pronouns, to whether asking a colleague about their weekend is a trivial attempt at making conversation or a sign of privilege and toxic authoritarianism. Combine all this with being back in a world where it's uncertain if we'll be staring at each other across a conference table or glaring at a screen, and it can feel like there are dozens of stressors before one even considers the actual duties of their job.

Like all of us, I have more questions than answers, but I have tried to adopt the following personal policies to be an effective leader.

1. Assume the best in your people

It's easy to spend 90 seconds scanning the headlines, reading social media or watching what passes for the news on TV and come away assuming your fellow humans are angry, bitter zealots or worse. However, over four decades on this Earth has taught me that most people are fundamentally good and are trying to achieve some level of self-actualization while asking for little more than respect and acknowledgment.

If you assume your teams are rife with people who are one-misused cowboy hat emoji away from reporting you to HR, you'll never create a high-performing team. If you assume the best, you'll be pleasantly surprised.

2. Make empathy your go-to

Our workforces have become incredibly diverse places, well beyond traditional statistical diversity, and I've had the privilege to work with people from all manner of upbringings, political persuasions and worldviews. I've heard plenty that I fundamentally disagree with, but I've tried to rely on empathy first and put myself in that person's shoes before dismissing them or trying to refute whatever point they're trying to make. In most cases, I won't change a deeply held belief, but I will come away understanding where that person is coming from and respecting their position.

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3. Ignore the noise and strive for respect

While it seems we're subject to endless noise, most of it is optional. You can turn off social media or take a walk rather than listening to the nightly news. I have my share of questions and concerns about contemporary social movements that have found their way into company-mandated training programs and the like, but at their core, they seem to be about treating each other with respect and dignity, which are ideas I've long supported. Rather than expending mental energy questioning corporate decisions, I'd rather help a new team member or find someone I can impactfully mentor.

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Create a culture of trust

The above tips help contribute to what I believe is the key to leading in this seemingly fraught era: creating a culture of trust. If I trust my teams to do the right thing and treat them with respect, I will hopefully earn their faith that I am attempting to do the right thing as well. We all fail, and in a trusting team, those failures become development lessons rather than yet another anxiety-inducing event.

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