How do you cope if your boss, colleague, client or other stakeholder is emotionally immature? These are individuals who can be successful on the outside; they are smart and capable, but they have not developed emotionally. This makes them very tricky to deal with, and even harder to build a working relationship with!
This article explores their likely traits, and ideas for how you can respond.
What is emotional immaturity?
There are five main characteristics of an emotionally immature person (EIP), as defined by clinical psychologist Lindsay Gibson. Do you recognise any of these in someone you know?
They need to be centre stage, and think the whole world is about them.
It’s typical of babies and toddlers, and perhaps also the teenage phase when life is all about conforming with your peer group and manipulating your parents to get what you want.
This is also known as narcissism in adults.
Low, or lack of, empathy
They are unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and are unaware of the emotional impact their actions may have on other people. They can’t consider another person’s point of view.
They can’t stand outside themselves to look at themselves objectively. They never question themselves. They can’t admit they might be wrong or over-reacting. They won’t admit vulnerability.
This is likely to mean they don’t learn from past mistakes, and therefore they keep repeating their destructive patterns.
A key element of leadership development is the ability to reflect on your behaviour and learn from it so you can try something different next time. When you get really good at this, you can adapt in the moment. An emotionally immature person does not do this.
Fear of emotional intimacy
If you were to express yourself in an emotional way, an EIP will be scared by that and will withdraw / pull back from you Your emotion and vulnerability make them uncomfortable. This makes it harder to build trust, as some degree of emotional ‘intimacy’ builds relationships at work.
The way an emotionally immature person approaches life is with the view that reality is what they feel it is. It’s not rational. Their feelings lead the way.
For example, if they feel they are not doing good work, they will catastrophise it and label themselves a terrible person who is terrible at their job.
As with many things in life, it’s a continuum. Everyone is somewhere along the line, from one extreme to another. Depending on where they are, the EIP you know may or may not be functioning well.
You might be working with someone who has some, but not all, the characteristics listed above. They may be very academic, in a senior position, well-regarded at work, and quite successful. On the outside, they seem highly intelligent and accomplished – and they are. However, they are not fully grown up emotionally and this will put them out of balance – the rational side is out of kilter.
Are you an EIP?
You might be asking yourself this question. If you are, it’s less likely that you’re emotionally immature, because you are demonstrating the third characteristic of self-reflection!
Having said that, there are times when we are all overly emotional, and we react in a way that is out of proportion to the situation. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up when this happens – but do analyse what triggered it, so you can learn from it.
If you are emotionally mature, you will be able to step back and tap into your value system and empathy. You’ll reflect: “Maybe I’ve over-reacted, maybe the other person has a valid point, maybe we can come together to co-create a solution that gives us the best outcome…”
Over time, you will enhance your emotional maturity.
How to deal with an EIP
When you are the child of emotionally immature parents, you’re a bit stuck, because you’re dependent on them. (Gibson has written books on this topic, in case it’s of interest to you.)
If, as an adult in the workplace, your boss is emotionally immature, it can be hard to deal with, as they have a degree of power over you.
You can’t change anyone, so you have to learn to manage yourself in that scenario.
Because they don’t behave in an emotionally mature way, the natural response of an emotionally immature person is to be defensive (as their way of dealing with a perceived threat). They can’t meet you where you are, and you shouldn’t try to meet them where they are as you’ll just get sucked into their drama.
The most valuable thing you can do is to detach yourself and observe what they are doing. To centre yourself, imagine you are sitting in the cinema, watching you and that person on the screen.
Limit the time you spend with them. If it’s a personal relationship, you can make the choice to leave. If it’s a work relationship, you may not have the option of changing jobs, so you need to develop coping tactics.
For a more successful interaction, be clear on the outcome you want from the discussion, consider what you want to express, and focus on that.
Be clear and methodical in your interactions. Repeat what you want – this will confuse them as they are not getting their way.
What NOT to do
Don’t try to build a relationship with them.
Don’t agree with them. Just say: “Uhuh” in a neutral way.
Don’t feel pressure to respond immediately. Buy yourself time. Say something like: “I need time to think about that”.
If you’re naturally or overly empathic, you might analyse to try and understand why they are the way they are, and instinctively want to ‘rescue’ them. But you won’t change them, so don’t try. Remember, they see themselves as a victim in life. They’ll keep attempting to bring you into their reality.
Over time, your brain could get scrambled. If you don’t maintain distance, you lose your own sense of reality. They can be dominant, scary and intimidating , with the risk that you become passive. You just go along with whatever they want. You lie low and keep quiet to avoid another angry outburst. Life is like walking on eggshells.
I see it like a whirlpool that sucks you in and eventually down to a place where it’s hard to get out.
What this means to you
Post-covid, employers are facing the ‘great resignation’ as people have had time to reflect on what they want and are choosing to move on. Among the main reasons they give for leaving are ‘bad boss’ and ‘toxic culture’. In order to keep your people, you need to model and encourage a non-toxic culture – and that includes emotional maturity. See Further reading, below, for other articles that will give you ideas on this.
Separately, if you recognise any of this from your childhood or personal life and would like more information, please contact me.
My other articles on this topic that you may find useful include:
- Introducing Leadership Agility (especially the Expert and Achiever leaders mindset)
- Leadership Agility Compass (especially the Self-reflection quadrant)
- How to empty your busy mind (EIPs lead with their emotions. They don’t think. The Three Principles understanding explains that your emotions are created by your thinking)
- How to deal with toxic team members
- Emotionally intelligent teams
- Compassion for yourself and others
- The power of vulnerability
- Why it’s OK to show emotion in the workplace
In December I’ll share a list of the most popular articles so you can take another look. We’ll be back in the new year with more leadership insights.