"How to lead when your team is exhausted - and so are you"

Source: Harvard Business Review.


What happened to my determination? a leader pointed out in the middle of a session.

We were discussing how he and his team were navigating the second wave of the pandemic and responding to the breaking news that a vaccine might be on the horizon. On the surface, all was well: the business was prospering and his company was in a good position.

However, that observation captured his real concern: On a personal level he was experiencing a loss of agency, determination and energy. The "steady hand" approach and quick-action mindset that had characterized his leadership during the first wave was becoming blurred, less resourceful, and much more volatile.

As we dug through the layers of the organization, it turned out that the sentiment was widespread among other leaders and managers. Stress incidents were on the rise, people's emotional reactions were becoming more polarized, and there were more team defections.



The same is probably the case in a wide range of companies and sectors. It goes by different names: "pandemic fatigue," "brain fog," "work-life blur," "extended void," and an "endless wait," to name a few phrases I've heard leaders use. Customers mention that they are fed up and bored and that "2020 has been more than heavy." Even those who work in booming industries report feeling "emotionally amputated." "The other day I cried for no reason," another client (usually harsh) told me. Others struggle with not being able to do things like exercise with great enthusiasm, as they did during the first wave of the pandemic. Your new collection of home fitness equipment is gathering dust. And no one gets a kick out of another virtual "happy hour" at work.

It seems that everyone is tired. Despite the fact that the vaccine shines at the end of the tunnel, the beginning stretch will be long and perhaps it will take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect.

To advance through the second wave successfully, leaders need to reexamine their personal resilience and that of their team members - the ability and strength to overcome obstacles, rebound, and bounce back from challenges. How strong are you under pressure? How fast do you recover from defeat?

Most important: How can you find the mental strength to drive through the last mile?


How to lead when the whole world is tired


Compared to the adrenaline-fueled response in the spring and the false dawn about recovery during the summer, the second wave requires a new understanding of personal resilience. In the first wave, personal resilience was based on an emergency psychological response called arousal. The shocks, threats and sudden uncertainty make us super alert and we activate resources that are deep: Adrenaline, fighting spirit and union. This response is impulsive, almost universal, and immediately recognizable on many computers.

Personal resilience in the second wave is a different story because it is based on psychological resistance. Psychological resistance is based on more ingrained emotional patterns, shaped by our individual needs, stories, and experiences. Endurance is required because frankly the second wave is not exciting at all. People report feeling bored, disconnected, and nervous. Unlike the deep skin reactions of the first wave, the second wave requires perseverance, stamina, and even defiance against the randomness, sadness, and burden of the pandemic.

Cultivating resilience requires a bit of emotional rewiring and requires a different kind of attractiveness to team members and colleagues. The essential task is to identify your biggest challenges for the coming year and then tap into the psychological stamina you and your team need to get there. There are three key steps: understanding the difference between urgency and importance; balance comfort with containment; and find new ways to energize yourself and others.


Understand urgency versus importance


This may sound obvious, but it's amazing how much entire organizations avoid facing the toughest challenges of the future. One of the reasons is our natural response to crises: we become shortsighted and put aside everything that is not urgent. Once we have arranged what is urgent, we feel that we deserve a good rest. In several of the best teams that I advise today, there is a tendency not to see the challenges ahead or to rationalize: "When Covid-19 is over, we will address the problem."

Leaders and teams must avoid this temptation. While rest is vital outside of the workday, inactivity during it can fight back. In military units, for example, boredom and waiting time are perceived as more stressful than actual combat. In the study "Challenges of the Unhooked Mind," researchers found that when people were instructed to sit in a room and do nothing, they chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than spending time in silence. Most people seem to prefer something over nothing, even if that something is unproductive or harmful. As a senior NATO officer told me for my book Battle Mind: “It is better to act and make a decision than not to act. In other words, the consequences are often greater if you decide not to act than if you do. The willingness to take risks is a precondition for being able to act under pressure or in demanding situations.

The way forward may be to follow the example of a CEO I advise. Even though his business has been successful in Covid-19, he decided not to rest on his laurels but to ask, "How can we turn short-term momentum into long-term benefits?" He asked his executive team to brainstorm ideas for the future and establish a task force with high-performing talent from across the organization. Specifically, he asked them to consider what actions they could take in the here and now, steps that in the years to come would eventually translate into longer-term competitive advantages.

Another approach would be to ask yourself and your colleagues if you are, in fact, fully prepared for the food frenzy that will inevitably begin in the wake of the vaccine. Businesses will clamor to win back lost business and win back lost customers. For many companies, dealing with the aftermath will be as intense as dealing with the crisis.

Ask yourself and your teams: Are you doing all you can do to emerge from the crisis as a stronger company? The window for change may be closing and the time to turn good intentions into action is now.

Balancing compassion and support


To act, you and your employees must be motivated to act. Specifically, action requires both compassion and restraint.

First, let's look at compassion. At this point in the crisis, the conditions that lead to depression, loneliness, and anxiety are present: working in isolation, health concerns, job insecurity, heavy workloads, and rapidly changing priorities. A global survey conducted by Mercer found that the majority of the 270 insurance companies surveyed rate mental health as a risk as much as smoking.

Leaders need to be serious about mental wellness and intervene sooner rather than later. This means that your employees need more warmth and comfort than they could have before the pandemic. But you can't calm your team with spreadsheets and plans; that requires listening and daring to remain in the most difficult moments, daring to speak of doubts and discomfort, instead of moving on to the next point on the agenda.

There are a couple of ways to approach this. One involves saying "I don't know" or sharing your own feelings of discomfort. I see a huge difference in leaders expressing their insecurities, because it goes both ways: When you dare to tell your team about the issues you are struggling with, they will follow suit.

Another approach is to encourage the fundamental feeling that people are good enough, that they have earned their place, and that their worth is not just a function of their actions and results, but of who they are and how they carry themselves. So don't just talk about "getting things done" in your conversations with your colleagues, but also acknowledge "who they are" using specific examples of their personal contributions and human qualities. This will reduce anxiety and second guessing.

Compassion, however, must be balanced with restraint. Containment is described by IMD professor Anand Narasimhan as "the ability to observe and absorb what is happening around you, but to provide a sense of stability." Stability comes from setting limits, raising the bar, keeping pressure at the optimum level, and helping each other out of self-pity and humor.

In fact, too much caring and compassion can lead people into a trap of learned helplessness, believing that they cannot act without help and support from others. As the father of modern positive psychology professor Martin Seligman demonstrated, we experience learned helplessness when faced with uncontrollable and inescapable stress. We simply stop trying to respond to hazards and passively accept any harm that happens to us.

So once you pick people up (or yourself), the goal is not to pamper. Rather, it's about using your connection to catch a second wind. And as any boxer will tell you, a second wind is triggered by defiance, anger, fear, and frustration. Feelings that we normally suppress or intellectualize in our professional lives.

So instead of turning the heat down completely and feeling the effect of exhaustion and boredom, it might be a good idea to turn up the heat and go into fight mode. Take a good look at the battles that will face you next year. How can you stay ahead of the curve? How can you prepare for the next stages? How can you mobilize and be able to attack before dawn?

In my conversations with a wide range of leaders, they repeatedly emphasize how important it is to be able to do something rather than let it go. Maybe you want to stay in bed all day watching Netflix and eating pizza, or "eat under the duvet," as one of my clients describes this type of reaction. Every now and then this can even work well with a little constructive denial and self-indulgence, but not every day and not every time the going gets tough.

Yes, the current moment calls for compassion, but it also calls for a little more collective advantage and defiance against the injustice of the virus. You want people to say "enough is enough" and stand up to fight the gloom. As with good parenting, the key is to find the right balance between caring and challenge, between compassion and support, between saying "you're good enough as you are" and "moving on and getting to the next level."


Energize everyone, every day


"I'm amazed that the hardest part right now is managing my own mind," concluded the CEO of a large capitalization company with a sigh near the end of our session.

Going into the last stretch, the biggest challenge for leaders may be keeping the energy in themselves and their teams. We do not know how long it will take to finish the last mile and we can no longer trust the urgency of the crisis. Patience with feel-good language like "we have to get together" or "let's get over this" is now close to zero. The appetite is for specific and actionable communication - what to do now to bring together and how to get through it.

The key is to get the energy flowing and never accept that meetings and interactions become stale or boring. Energy is not a fact and must be generated and channeled internally. For example, the LEGO Group has defined the goal of "Energizing Everyone, Every Day" as a core leadership principle.

There are many ways to energize: sharing success stories, setting up competitions, breaking long projects into sprints, communicating. But also shorten endless zoom meetings, cut tumbleweed projects, and allow for constructive conflict and honest feedback on your teams. How you do it matters less. That you do it matters immensely.

Furthermore, people with a high degree of resilience tend to prevail because they interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changing. When something is viewed this way, it leaves us able to think, "It will go away one day, it can be stopped, and I can do something about it." This allows us to act. It's the tough leader mindset. Resilient people are more willing to make decisions because they believe that they have a real impact on their situation and they are not afraid to influence it.

Alternatively, if we face an obstacle thinking, "It's permanent, it's a general problem, and there's nothing I can do about it," it leaves us with little or no power to act. People who lack resilience also tend to internalize the problem by ruminating and having thoughts like, “It's probably me. I'm not good. I can't do anything right. This leaves the person paralyzed. You can probably imagine how these thoughts can spin out of control and end in sheer self-destruction.

Resilience is the most fundamental quality in navigating chaos. The belief that we have the ability and strength to overcome obstacles and act involves a constant balancing act, and for most it is a lifelong challenge. Without resilience we tend to act indecisively or blindly follow directions. If we are not sure that we have the necessary skills, we run the risk of being paralyzed or subjected to forces beyond our control. Managing your own mind and deciding to take charge of your destiny (and helping others to do the same) is where you find the mental strength during the last mile.


Source: Harvard Business Review.

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