Avoiding leader’s guilt

Despite appearing cool, calm, and collected, Dark Horses’ chief exec Melissa Robertson says she feels guilty “about everything” Here’s how she manages that niggling feeling

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today

Let’s talk about guilt. Maybe it’s exacerbated by COVID, maybe it’s worse for women – maybe it’s worse for menopausal women – but boy do I feel guilty all the time – about something, about everything, about anything. 

Studies suggest that women are more predisposed to guilt than men, and menopausal women, as decreasing oestrogen levels play havoc with neurotransmitters, are even more likely to experience stronger feelings of guilt. So, what does that mean for me when I’m trying to run an agency and present a vision of calm, collected focus and control? 

  • I feel guilty that I surreptitiously (or sometimes even blatantly) check and respond to messages whilst on video calls.
  • I feel guilty when I’m a bit grumpy or short with others.
  • I feel guilty about tucking into chocolate or wine when I should be resisting.
  • I feel guilty that I’m writing this article, when I’ve got a billion other things I should be doing.

But do I feel really bad about these dastardly actions? The truth is, not really. I have some minor feelings of remorse, but not enough to stop me acting this way. No, the real guilt – the pervading, gut-wrenching, chest-tightening guilt – comes from the things I am not doing.

  • I feel guilty that I’m not going into the office more to support the team who do go in.
  • I feel guilty that I don’t catch up enough individually with the team.
  • I feel guilty that one of my teenagers is struggling with his mental health and I’m failing to get him the help he so desperately needs.
  • I feel guilty when the kids get back from school and I can’t chat to them because I’m on work calls. 
  • I feel guilty that this list could go on for pages.

No-one wants someone feeling out-of-control-underneath taking responsibility for their career development and the business’s success yet, I know that I’m not the only one; guilt has become something of an epidemic, with as many as one-in-five citing it as a reason for not taking work breaks; it’s corrosive, making us worse at our jobs, not better.

So, what can you do about it? 

As much of this kind of guilt is unjustified, the standard rules for guilt mitigation don’t really help. Owning up, apologising, making amends and so on are only helpful when you have actually done something ‘wrong’. Instead, this is about taking a demolition ball to self-criticism and self-punishment, which can take a heavy emotional toll. 

The first solution is self-compassion and self-care. It might sound terribly navel-gazing, but this is about your own internal agony, so you don’t need to shout it from the rooftops. It might be hard to just ignore it all, but try to be less hard on yourself, and give yourself a break. Remind yourself of the good stuff that you do, how people might value you, and make an effort to boost your own confidence. 

Little wins and little pats on the back from yourself can go a remarkably long way; I changed the bed, I did a banging presentation, I made someone feel good about themselves, I cooked a great meal, I got up early and took the dog on a long walk, I made people laugh, I messaged my friends – I tidied up – a bit. 

Don’t struggle along just pushing feelings of guilt down into your already knotted-up stomach. Delegate upwards, downwards and sideways. Don’t waste your time feeling guilty about something you might not know, because naïve curiosity is strategic and creative brain juice. Talk about it more openly, normalise it to minimise it, and you’ll realise that we’re all trying to hold it together.

And, of course, you could also start to do all the little things that you feel guilty about not doing – but that’s probably a step too far. The house isn’t superficially that grubby, and Persil has consistently said that ‘dirt is good’. In the words of Disney’s Elsa “Let it go”.

Oh, and regularly take days off and proper holiday breaks. Perspective is the greatest healer.

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