How can Managers work with an Alexithymic Employee

Alexithymia is a difficulty millions of people struggle with every day. It affects both their personal and professional relationships. Although challenging, it is possible to work with an alexithymic employee using simple human qualities.

Employees and managers have to communicate regularly. It could be related to an on-going project, an annual review, a team meeting or a conversation at the coffee machine. 

The challenge for many managers happens when they are faced with an employee who doesn’t display any emotion. That difficulty can lead to misunderstandings, confrontations, mistrust and poor judgements. 

Alexithymia is a difficulty millions of people struggle with every day. It affects both their personal and professional relationships. Although challenging, it is possible to work with an alexithymic employee using simple human qualities.

What is Alexithymia?

Alexithymia means “having no words for emotions”. It defines a person inability to identify, differentiate or describe emotions both in oneself and others.

Although there isn’t a clinical diagnosis for alexithymia, psychologists have been able to associate it to a range of mental health disorders like depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and autism. 

Traumatic experiences in early childhood or dramatic events (losing someone, being fired, surviving an accident, etc.) can cause the development of alexithymia in someone’s personality traits. 

On a previous blog post, I share “[3 tips] to regain the ability to name your emotion.” If you have alexithymia or want to learn to label your emotions, I invite you to read it.

How to recognise an employee with alexithymia 

A lack of emotional awareness is what characterises alexithymia. Hence, it isn’t surprising to meet a person who might not be conscious of having it.

However, some symptoms can help you recognise if your employee struggles with this condition.

  • The person:
    • is incapable of verbalising his emotions or identifying others’ emotional states. 
    • displays a lack of empathy. 
    • has violent or disruptive behaviours.
    • has a limited or inflexible imagination. 
    • has a logical or constricted thinking style, which doesn’t consider emotions.
    • appears distant, rigid, and humourless.
    • has a low organisational commitment (which is the feeling of emotional closeness of an employee to the company).

I want to bring to your awareness that the list above isn’t exhaustive. Even though a person could display one or more characteristics, it doesn’t mean that the individual has alexithymia. Maybe, the person is shy, reserved or just in a bad mood.

Your role as a Manager 

Managers are often in charge of the overall positive atmosphere in the workplace. They also have to maintain a healthy environment by making sure their teams feel good at and with their work.

Yet, sometimes it can be challenging to manage a person with no emotional awareness. Below are ideas you can use when dealing with an alexithymic person:

Communication: Ask your employee if she prefers to talk about how she feels at work or regarding a project by e-mail. Then, you can propose a face to face meeting to sum-up everything, if necessary. 

Some people are better at expressing their emotions through writing than speaking. 

Patience: Do your best to remain patient and comprehensive of the individual and the situation. Sometimes, it can take time for a person with alexithymia to express his feelings. This “waiting-time” can create a sense of frustration within both of you. Instead, support your employee while he is trying to open himself to you. 

Empathy: Is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” You can help your employee in labelling his emotions by asking questions beyond the “how are you?” 

For instance, “are you frustrated or anxious?” ; “Do feel you excited or stressed?” ; “does the project scares you, or do you feel insecure working on it?” 

The goal is not to be satisfied with answers like “I am fine” or “not so great”. These are not enough when appraising someone’s emotional state.

Conclusion 

Emotions are great sources of information, which can help managers to understand their team better. Emotions are also energy, and their intensity varied depending on the words we use. There is a difference between “feeling frustrated” and “feeling disappointed.”

To date, there isn’t a treatment for alexithymia, but psychologists have shared various solutions to “heal” from it – for instance, journaling, group therapy and creative reading. 

I believe if we make an effort to understand each other and to be understandable, we can make the workplace a safe environment for honesty, genuine collaboration and emotional support.  

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