How to be an Emotionally Intelligent Manager prior to a parental break

communication at work d&i strategies managing working parents maternity leave Feb 07, 2017

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. Having emotional intelligence as a Leader is essential for success, especially during periods of change. Recognising your own stress when the team will be changing as a result of parental breaks, also allows you effectively manage it.

There are a number of behaviours attributed to EI which are worth paying particular attention to when supporting an employee through the transition to parenthood:

Leaders with empathy have the ability to put themselves in someone else's situation, they practice the art of looking at situations from other people's perspectives. Starting with the period before any parental leaves - what may be some perspectives around you at work with the pending changes ahead?

Think of your pregnant team member - what does it feel like to her? Actually, if she is honest with you, she will tell you it often feels like an emotional rollercoaster, especially if it is her 1st pregnancy. There are so many unknowns, so many changes, fears, joys, hormones…..oh and morning sickness also thrown in for good measure! She may be questioning whether you/the business will still take her seriously now that she is pregnant. She may be wondering how best to hand over her role so that there is a seamless transition of her work, prior to her leave. She may be getting fed up with people talking about “the extra holiday” she is about to take!

Maybe the pending change to your team is due to the partner opting to take an extended parental break or being the “primary career”. What’s their perspective? What do they perceive as the impact on their career - “getting off the fast career track to the slow track?” as one partner put it when talking about their fears.

Think also about the team - how will they feel when they are informed about a team member’s pending departure for a parental break - overwhelmed, surprised, anxious?

Finally, who are the other key stakeholders who may rely on this individual? What is their perspective?

Taking the time to reflect on the impact of all those concerned, allows you to proactively manage what is being said and what is not being said at work. Your responses and behaviour will have a great influence on those around you and can shape how successful the transition periods around a parental break will be. This applies to your verbal and written communication plus your body language – what are you not saying verbally that your body is saying for you? How might this impact the trust and relationship with this individual/parent to be, the team, or other key stakeholders?

What about your own biases? No, not me we hear you say! The reality is that like it or not, most of us have our biases. Having the self-awareness of your own biases empowers you grow your EI. Your reaction to your employee’s news and your on-going behaviour around the transition towards your employee and the wider team, will largely be driven by your own assumptions and expectations as to what you think “should” happen.

It is worth remembering that you have your own unique set of values, priorities and opinions on the marriage of career and family. Some of these will be conscious and maybe formed in recent years if you are also a parent, or it may be that you have unconscious biases on this topic, based on your own learnt experiences - what did your parents do? If it was a long time ago when you started a family, what choices did you and your spouse make?

Biases can be positive or negative aspects of human nature; they all influence how we act and interact with other people and events. We invite you to press pause now and spend a few minutes reflecting on the following questions to become aware of your own biases and how these could influence your intentions and how you interact with your employee and the team as their manager.


  • What is my version of a healthy and happy family unit?
  • How do I feel when I see women at work who are working long hours and I know they have children at home?
  • How do I feel about men at work becoming the primary carer and therefore responsible for creche pick up?
  • What are my assumptions about men or women who work part-time or use flexible working more than their other colleagues?
  • How could my thoughts and opinions affect my behaviour towards my employee(s)?

As you become aware of these biases, challenge them. Ask yourself for another perspective. Keep an open mind. If you know that your biases may negatively impact your relationship and how you manage this transition, solicit guidance and support from your own Manager, or HR, or other peers who have recently managed a transition to parenthood.

To summarise, here are some Dos and Don’ts to help you manage this period prior to a parental break:


Acknowledge and listen to their fears - it is both an exciting and frightening journey the road to parenthood. For the pregnant employee, there are also so many physiological changes and for the first time Mother, so many ‘unknowns’. You don’t need to have the answers, simply hear some of her challenges and together you will be able to co-create some solutions that work for both of you.

Do ask how they are - seems very simple doesn’t it? Yet, often managers don’t ask this powerful question - how are you? Sometimes they simply forget in the business of their lives, sometimes managers don’t ask for fear that the person may respond with a negative answer or even emotion! We have coached and interviewed 100s of parents in this pre-leave phase. They all say that they would have loved their Manager to regularly ask how they are and …...actually wait for the response, ie to genuinely want to know how they are!

Do acknowledge and bring into the open any concerns that the wider team may be having. When you and the employee agree that the news is being shared with the team, also use this opportunity to highlight that of course this means change…..which often evokes fears. Make that normal…... then, emphasise that a) your door is always open if anyone wants to talk to you about those fears or concerns and b) and your intention is that you will work together as a team to agree the best way to minimise any disruption and stress. Use this same thinking and approach if the employee’s break will also impact internal and external stakeholders/clients.

Do recognise the efforts of the wider team at a time when you are asking for their adaptability and support.

Finally, do CHAMPION those around you who may be stretching themselves to fulfill any changes in their role as a result of the transition. If an employee feels unsure of their capabilities and ability to “fill the shoes” of the colleague who is leaving, they will feel much more empowered if their manager truly believes they can and champions them to do so.

Now the DON’Ts:

Don’t make assumptions about what your pregnant employee can or can’t do, or what she would like or not like to do - even if YOU think you are being considerate and thoughtful, your assumptions may be ill-founded. For example, you may assume that she wouldn’t want to travel and so you don’t engage the employee on a piece of international work, despite her being the best person to go. Although you are acting out of kindness, she may be very eager to be involved and is more than happy to travel!

Don’t project any stress you may feel on to the individual and wider team. Even if you do feel concerned, talk at first to a peer/colleague to share those concerns, so that you can change how you position the break as an opportunity. Your starting point needs to be a positive mindset for this to be a productive conversation!

Don’t put all the responsibility to find the best solution on yourself- it is a great idea to use your team to help find the best solution for many reasons - several brains are more innovative than one for a start! Also if team members are included in the brainstorming and decision-making, they will buy-in more to the changes and feel accountable - and you will be practicing inclusive leadership.

Don’t transfer any blame, criticism or concerns to the employee taking the parental break. Be mindful that your reaction to the news will set the tone for the coming months – the more trust that is evoked now, the better for both of you. Focus on the positive news for your team member and how you as a team can make it work.

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