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Diffusing the Power of Guilt to Be a Better Leader

Guilt can be a powerful emotion for a leader, but there are ways to set boundaries so they can set it aside and move forward with tough decisions.

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Guilt can wield a lot of power in the workplace, especially among founders. As you grow your business, you will inevitably make decisions that will leave you feeling varying degrees of guilt. Maybe it's something small like pushing off a meeting or declining an introduction, or maybe it's something larger like separating ways with an employee or ending a relationship with an advisor.

No matter the situation, guilt can be a challenging emotion to process and diffuse. As leaders, we face tough decisions on a daily basis. It's part of the job.

To survive the demands and pace of today's business world, a great leader must possess the ability to adapt to change. This means realizing that what used to work even two quarters ago may not necessarily work now. And if the decisions you make are accompanied by guilt, you must learn to separate and contain it, so that it doesn't overwhelm you or interfere with your decision making.

Related: Does Making Simple Decisions Feel Overwhelming? Here's How to Regain Control.

In the early days of active fundraising for my company, whenever I was approached by an investor, I felt compelled to immediately book them on my calendar. But now that our focus has shifted from fundraising to business growth, there's not as much urgency around accepting as many investor meetings — yet I still feel guilty when I don't promptly respond to a query or shift my schedule to accommodate their needs.

Over time, I've learned to course correct and understand that declining or delaying a meeting may be in the best interest of the company. It's perfectly acceptable to say, "I'd love to meet with you, but I'm heads down on growth." Instead of letting guilt guide my decisions, I'm placing value on my time and space, which is not always an easy thing to do.

Guilt can also emerge around people decisions. There have been times when I interview a candidate I really like as a person, but I know they're not the best fit for our company or culture. Rather than making a hiring decision based on "being nice," I need to remind myself that I need to decide based on the most critical business priorities.

Separating guilt from empathy

I always say that there is nothing more draining for a leader than making tough decisions that directly impact the human condition. It's important to remember that not everyone in your professional life is built to grow and change as fast as the world around them.

When you realize that a relationship has run its course, whether it's with a mentor or an employee, it's okay to have empathy and want to do right by them, but that doesn't mean you need to feel guilty about ending the relationship.

Throughout the pandemic, it was critical to stay flexible to meet the needs of our team. We had to be willing to adjust processes or policies to take into account an employee's individual circumstances. But leading with empathy and understanding is very different from sustaining a relationship out of obligation and guilt.

While leaders can't avoid feeling guilty at times, you can acknowledge when you're feeling it and be careful about not letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole. After identifying what you're feeling, you can then work to compartmentalize so that it doesn't seep into other critical business areas.

Related: Looking Inward Can Make You a Better Leader

Set boundaries

One way to do this is by setting boundaries, which can protect your mental space, time and well-being, three of your most critical assets as a founder. When you don't have the capacity or time to deal with a particular problem, it's okay to delay addressing it until the time is right.

Carve out time to recharge

It's critical to give yourself time and space to recharge after making difficult decisions. I make it a point to block my calendar to take mental health breaks throughout the day. Whether it's going for a walk, going grocery shopping, meditating or watching a TED Talk, taking a break to clear your head and shut off your busy brain can be an effective way of resetting and diffusing the guilt you may be feeling.

Put pen to paper

Leaders usually find that they need to make choices that aren't always the most popular. But because some leaders gravitate toward being people pleasers, it makes these decisions even more challenging.

When I'm in this position, I find it especially helpful to write down what I'm thinking in a letter to myself. This isn't something I share with anyone else — it's for me to release my emotions and then move on. And if it helps to print it out and burn it, all the power to you.

Related: 2 Keys to Improving Leaders' Mental and Emotional Wellbeing

Find a confidante

Having someone you trust to speak with about the challenges of leadership and the guilt that accompanies tough decisions can also be helpful. I'm fortunate to have mentors and coaches that I can text or call when I need some extra help or guidance. Whether it's a coach, therapist, advisor or trusted friend, make sure to find someone in your circle who provides you with a safe environment to share and validate your feelings.

As you become more adept at spotting when and why you feel guilt, you are moving one step closer to being able to put it in a box and move forward with the next set of tough decisions. By setting boundaries, building in time to recharge, putting your thoughts and feelings on paper and opening up to someone you trust, you can hopefully weaken the power that guilt may hold over you so that you can focus on taking your business to the next level.

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