Rewiring Toxic Supportiveness with Emotional Intelligence
Have you ever had someone tell you, “If I can do it, so can you!” with the intention that the words are encouraging or motivating?
How did those words land with you? Did you start mentally cataloging all the differences between yourself and the other person as evidence to refute their claim? Or maybe you chalked it up to the other person’s inability to read the room, or you were put off by the incomprehensible arrogance of their failure to appreciate their own experience, learning curve, power, privilege or support they have that others may not. If something seems easy for you and you assume it would also be easy for others, you’re skipping over everything that happened to make it easy for you.
It seems obvious that people are not supported by toxicity, yet I see leaders attempt this unfortunately frequently.
People mean well, but this type of commentary feeds the toxicity in a team. When it comes from someone in leadership, it is doubly damaging because it negates the individuality of the teammate while detaching the leader from their crucial role as educator and support. When I hear this phrase, I also question that person’s emotional intelligence - particularly their cognitive empathy skills.
We all have difficulty imagining what it would be like not knowing something we currently know well. Bridging the gap between our own experience and someone who, by the definition of being someone who is not ourselves, does not have our same experience can be tricky. We overlook how we got to the place of being able to do the thing and yet expect others to be right there with us. That is an unfair assumption, to say the least.
When you’re tempted to say, "If I can do it, you can do it," pause for a moment and think about the time before you knew how to do the thing. What helped you learn it? What did you have to do to get where you are now? I doubt someone just told you to do it, and then you did it like an expert. And yet who hasn’t frustratedly shouted “I told them what to do!” when someone is clearly not doing the thing.
To say if I can do something, you should be able to do it too, ignores what makes us unique individuals. It bypasses the role of the leader to support their teammates by setting them up to succeed.
Once you remember what you had to go through to get to where you are now, the next decision is how to accelerate that process for others; giving teammates the tools to succeed in their roles is one of the key functions of an emotionally intelligent leader. The expert leadership move in this situation is to quickly learn what the other person needs to flourish and get that to them as expediently as possible. What is keeping them from being able to do the thing? What support, skills, practice, and resources do they need?
The fastest way to get this information is to have a conversation with the other person! By “conversation,” I mean the type of conversation where you do 70%-80% of the listening! Here’s one option for a conversation starter: “What do you need to do X with excellence?” (Side note: you better be clear on what X is!) Once that has been clarified, your follow-up question is: “How can I support you in making that happen?” Listen!
These conversations are crucial to building close-knit teams that perform well together. You’ll be learning how to support your teammate and how to elevate their skills at the same time.
You don’t need to be in an official leadership role to have these conversations. Supporting your teammates elevates everyone.
Next time you see someone go down this toxic supportiveness path, or you’re tempted to say (probably with some frustration) “if I can do it, you can do it,” instead ask what they need to be awesome at the thing. Then work to meet those needs. Your team and your leadership will be better for the effort.