Written by: Marisa Murray, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Go to almost any playground and you might see the following story play out: One child will take a toy from a second child – or perhaps push them off of the swing they want to use. The second child will rightfully descend into tears at this injustice – while the first child will pleasantly continue on with a seemingly cold apathy to the suffering they just caused.
Let’s say the parent for the first child is aghast at this display of her child’s misbehaviour—she runs over to correct the situation and compels her child to apologize. Inside, she’s wondering, “What have I done wrong? Am I not a good parent? Is this how serial killers begin?”
Meanwhile, let’s say the parent for the second child is a bit dismissive. Yes, she goes over to pick up her crying child, but she shrugs it off, saying, “Nah, it’s alright. She just needs to toughen up.”
In this scenario we see examples of a blind spot capable of popping up in literally any working environment: Unhealthy Detachment. In my coaching work, I like to define this blind spot as “The actions people take or the ways they behave when they fail to prioritize what’s important to others.” The root cause is simple—one person’s behaviour creates conflict and frustration because they are undervaluing the emotions and priorities of other people.
But not just any people—their stakeholders.
Even the one-person startup has stakeholders, whether an investor, a product supplier, or their customer. We are all surrounded by our stakeholders. And when we are dismissive of their feelings, it results in confusion, disconnection, and inaccessibility.
In the playground example, we have a child who is dismissive towards the feelings of another child, totally disconnected despite knowing the pain they’ve caused. But we also have a parent who is emotionally inaccessible, brushing the matter aside. We also have a parent who is looking at her child’s actions mostly as it relates to herself (“Am I not a good parent?”) instead of digging into the emotions underpinning the child’s misbehaviour. This too is unhealthy.
All of these various forms of Unhealthy Detachment to emotions can manifest within the workplace where more is at stake than a toy. In fact, when Unhealthy Detachment is ignored at work, it’s not just feelings that get hurt—it’s the business itself.
The role of emotions in our work
As leaders, we spend lots of time thinking about our mission, our vision, and creating calls to
action. Why? Because we know these are important drivers of success. Despite this, I’ve noticed many leaders tend to overlook the role human emotions play in either optimizing or deteriorating the work environment.
Perhaps it is the longstanding notion that when you come to work, you need to “check your feelings at the door.” But if we’re honest enough with ourselves, very few of us actually do this—myself included. So why do we expect others to?
A greater challenge is how to uncover the feelings someone has about those they work with. Most of us keep our feelings about coworkers hidden away. But the degree to which we are emotionally connected to each other and the purpose of our organizations does fuel our motivation to do our best work.
In this way, the “check your feelings at the door” mentality is not just unreasonable. At best, it could be preventing you from finding the key ingredient to super-charging your work. At worst, it’s a gigantic invitation for blind spots to fester in your business and rot away your accomplishments, your reputation, and your impact.
Instead, great leaders recognize the critical role emotions play in how we set others up for success—and set ourselves up for success, for that matter. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and earn a PhD in psychology or gather the team in a weekly session of singing “Kumbaya” complete with bongo drums and acoustic guitar. But what it does mean is you gain the awareness that when there is an unhealthy detachment from the emotions of others, it does more than just create a “bad vibe.” It is directly connected to a misalignment in how success itself is viewed.
Success in the workplace often depends on transcending self-awareness to gain more others-awareness.
That’s not to say being self-aware isn’t important. On the contrary, it’s incredibly important! But often what I’ve found in coaching people through Unhealthy Detachment is that they tend to be very self-aware with their own emotions. Almost too much, hence the reason they can justify their choices.
Where things break down is when they are painfully unaware of their impact on the emotions of others—widening the gap between their intentions and impact.
We’ve all heard of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But the best leaders understand that we need to upgrade this rule. We need to move away from treating others the way we want to be treated (that is, self-awareness) and into treating others the way they want to be treated, which is true others-awareness.
The attachment-detachment spectrum
To have a proper understanding of Unhealthy Detachment, it helps to recognize its place in a spectrum of how we prioritize aspects of our work. There is also such a thing as Healthy Detachment, Unhealthy Attachment, and Healthy Attachment.
When we place a low priority on low-importance issues, this is Healthy Detachment. These are low-impact issues, not worth battling over. However, when we care too much about low-importance issues, then we display an Unhealthy Attachment to an issue, like arguing about the artwork in the break room – unlikely to impact the company in a material way.
Likewise, when we place a high priority on high-importance issues, then we have a healthy attachment. If we set a low priority for high-importance issues, then we can label it as an Unhealthy Detachment.
Where you feel stressed could be an indicator of Unhealthy Detachment or Unhealthy Attachment. Often there is a direct relationship between an Unhealthy Detachment and a related Unhealthy Attachment.
For example, you may have an Unhealthy Attachment to alcohol consumption. After a tough day—you feel like you must have a drink to unwind. This could signal an Unhealthy Detachment from taking care of your physical and mental health. Unhealthy Attachments love to lurk within the corresponding blind spot of Unhealthy Detachment.
Repairing the damage
In my experience with witnessing Unhealthy Detachments and their impact on relationships, there are two ways they cause damage as a blind spot:
First, people can exhibit behaviours that create disconnection with their colleagues, all due to a general lack of understanding for how their colleagues feel.
Second, Unhealthy Detachment can also lead a person’s colleagues to assume there is a lack of empathy—they believe their colleague knows how they feel, but simply choose not to care.
One is a connection problem, and the other is an empathy problem. Both are unhealthy. This can get real messy when the two become linked.
Like with any blind spot I see with my clients, the key is shining a light onto it through feedback. Repairing the damage from Unhealthy Detachments, whether caused by you or others, is largely the same.
First, realign your efforts with the correct priorities. Which issues are truly most important in the long run? Then find out about the priorities of others—where are they placing high value? Once you see the gap between the two, you can begin to fill it in by syncing priorities.
To start your own reflection on whether you might have an Unhealthy Attachment lurking in your context. Have a look at the following questions:
What does this role need me to be passionate about? What do my colleagues and team members need me to be focused on? What outcomes are most important to others? Who can help me better understand which priorities have the lowest impact and highest impact?
What does the organization need our team to be passionate about? What do our key stakeholders need our team to be focused on? What outcomes are most important to each of our stakeholder groups? Who can help us better understand which of our priorities have the lowest impact and highest impact on them?
If you’d like to learn even more about how other leaders and companies have found and fixed their unhealthy detachments, I share three true life case studies in my latest book Blind Spots: How Great Leaders Uncover Problems and Unleash Performance. Once you can recognize the misalignment between your responses and others’ emotions, you can wield the power of Healthy Attachment to scale purpose and performance in your team.
P.S. Want to gain invaluable insights into your blind spots right now – that’s why we built www.feedbackfriend.ai. Get the feedback you need for free today.
Marisa Murray, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Marisa Murray is a leadership expert and executive coach with three Amazon best-sellers: Work Smart, Iterate!, and Blind Spots. She is CEO of Leaderley International and a TEDx speaker, dedicated to helping individuals and teams achieve superior performance. Her epiphany that "Blind Spots are the Key to Breakthroughs" inspired the creation of FeedbackFriend.ai, an AI-powered tool democratizing feedback access. Recognized by Manage HR magazine in the Top 10 Emerging Executive Coaching Companies for 2023, Leaderley serves clientele from the upper echelons of Fortune 500 companies. Through Marisa's writing, coaching, speaking, or 360s—her mission is to cultivate leaders that accelerate positive change.