As a coach and consultant, I have the privilege of talking daily with people from diverse backgrounds who work across the globe in every sector from health to education to finance, and I can tell you that everyone is feeling some level of strained & constrained right now. Understandably. We are experiencing a massive upheaval in our day to day lives that has implications for our individual & collective well being on a physical, emotional, & practical level. It’s a lot. It will continue to be a lot for quite a while.
Many of my clients lead teams & organizations, which adds an additional layer of stress & responsibility to their current experience. They are mission-driven, high performers, who take an immense amount of responsibility for people, process, & outcomes. Right now, they want to plan. They want to fix. They want to be strategic. They want to make sure all the people in their lives are taken care of…at home and at work. In other words, they want to do it all, just as they always do. And they are feeling immense amounts of guilt and frustration when they can’t…which is adding additional stress to their already full plate.
So this post is for my team & organizational leaders – a little perspective and an invitation to focus on a few simple things first as you navigate this moment in time.
First, some perspective:
Depending on where you live in the country, you’re likely coming out of week one or two of full-on quarantine and the move to remote work. Keep in mind that it takes at least three weeks for people to begin to truly make meaning of a significant life upheaval (think a loss, a move, a new job, a traumatic incident…in this case, a worldwide pandemic!). Before the three week mark, we are usually working in survival & crisis mode, just trying to get our bearings & get by.
It’s hard to plan too far ahead or be too strategic at the outset of a big change because old patterns (which is what we tend to make future plans based on) have shifted, and not enough time has passed for new ones to emerge. It’s hard to know how to restructure your work, reorganize team responsibilities or what guidelines will make working at home productive in the long run because you don’t have a ton of time tested data right now to determine what needs to be changed or adapted. Right now, you as an individual & we as a world are in a place of experiencing this change, wrapping our heads around it and trying to understand what it means & requires of us. It is normal to feel anxious, ungrounded & like it’s hard to plan down the line in meaningful ways…because it is.
And, keep in mind, that as time passes, you will come to know this new state more deeply, simply because you’ve spent more days living in it. Your brain will start to recognize patterns in your day to day life. The problems you need to solve for will become clearer. You’ll start to be able to “see” – where you need remote guidelines & how you might need to restructure work or pivot the products and services you offer. You will begin to be able to make more sense of what you’re experiencing and to take ever more strategic action as a leader and as an organization about how to move forward.
For now, remember, you are only a few weeks into this change right now (even though it might feel like you’ve been at this far longer). The time for planning & fixing & knowing exactly what to do is emerging day by day, and it might not be fully here yet. 🙂
Also, consider that it takes at least 28 days to build a new habit & to establish a new routine. Right now, we are all being asked to do & be in ways that likely don’t feel habitual to us. It’s going to take a while for you & your team to figure out what new habits & routines you need to build, to stand those up in your personal & professional lives and to develop the muscle you need to live into them consistently…on every front. So if you don’t feel like you or your team has strong virtual routines & skills right now, give yourself & everyone around you a break. You are right on par for the course. We are only seven to fourteen days into this new reality. You, your team, all of us, will be in a different place seven to fourteen days from now.
Second, some strategies:
Just because we are early on in this change, doesn’t mean that there aren’t thoughtful actions you can take to help you & your team move forward intentionally & strategically. At the same time, consider that the actions that may end up being most possible & impactful for you to take right now might not be the ones you’re conditioned to take or that your brain is telling you you should be taking as a leader. This is because we live in a world that largely runs on models of backwards planning & hyper-productivity, that places value on knowing the answers & putting out fully formulated thoughts rather than in one that values vulnerability, emergence, honoring context & people. And these are the things we are being called to place at the center of our world right now.
As a team and organizational leader, you set the tone for those you manage. Even as you are coming to know this new reality, people will look to you for direction. How you respond, communicate & lead will shape how they feel & act. While you can’t prevent, control or fix all of the anxiety or challenges your team members face (nor is it your responsibility to), you can provide them with a greater sense of stability in this moment of crises by doing some key things. Here are five simple, yet powerful things you can do right now to help your team navigate this moment in time.
STRATEGY #1: Re-set your bar for what’s possible right now.
In times of change, the cognitive, emotional & practical load we carry tends to increase. Let’s take a non-COVID example – moving across the country for a new job. Think of all the additional things you have to handle – finding a new apartment, getting clear on your new role & responsibilities, making new friends, signing kids up for school, finding new hobbies, etc. Consider that each of these “big” things has a lot of small tasks attached to it, plus an emotional weight (i.e. stress, worry, anxiety, fear). Sadly, you can’t just wave your magic wand, and voila a new apartment appears with all of your stuff in it. No, you have to attend open houses, negotiate a lease, possibly find roommates, fill out paperwork, load & unload your stuff, unpack, buy furniture, handle delivery, etc. The list goes on – not just for moving but for every one of those big rocks associated with this change.
While change generally increases the cognitive, emotional, & practical demands on us, it doesn’t usually increase the number of hours or the energy we have in a day to get things done. Often, we just have more to think about, process & do with the same amount of resources we usually have. Many of us pretend this is not the case – we set internal expectations & task lists that presume we have more time or energy than we have. Then we beat up on ourselves when reality doesn’t align with our expectations.
I already see this happening with so many of the leaders I coach – change has come calling, but expectations haven’t yet shifted and frustration is ripening. I want to be clear – this is a moment of global upheaval. I think we can safely say that what’s happening right now is bigger than a cross country move. We’ve been given more & higher stakes things to deal with on a day to day basis – learning how to work virtually (if we aren’t accustomed to that), educating children from home while working, financial ramifications, caring for elders, managing our own health, to name just a few. We still have the same number of hours in the day. Many of us also have less energy, money, & community than we usually do to navigate these challenges.
This is the reality of now.
And so, there is no world in which your expectations for yourself, for others, for your team’s productivity & output can remain the same. You can & should expect that team members will have wildly different levels of productively as they face diverse challenges with differing amounts of practical & emotional resources at their disposal. Less will get done in the professional realm as more is required of people in the personal one. As a team leader, be mindful of the bar you are setting. If you set your bar too high (or you don’t shift your pre-existing expectations for yourself or others), you will contribute to the overwhelm people are already feeling, increase burnout, & decrease productivity in the long term.
Instead, help your team do work and be productive while still attending to their personal needs & allowing space for emotional processing. Keep in mind that resetting your expectations based on the reality of now is about holding people to a reasonable standard not a lower one. And also keep in mind that as you & your team settle into this new way of working, you can shift expectations as needed.
STRATEGY #2: Take care of yourself, & encourage self-care in others.
You & your team members are the conduits through which all work happens. If you are not physically, mentally, or emotionally well, it will be hard for you to do work, respond to the very real challenges of now, produce results, & create a positive impact. This is always true – self-care has always been at the heart of productivity – and at this moment in time, it is extra important that we acknowledge and attend to this relationship, given the magnitude of upheaval we are all experiencing and the degree of adaptation we will all have to engage in. So eat well, get sleep, exercise as best you can. Manage your stress levels, watch what kind of media you consume, set boundaries on working hours, be in touch with the people you care about. Encourage and make it possible for your team members to do the same. Additional emotional, cognitive, & practical demands are being placed on everyone right now as we try to do work while educating our children, taking care of our elders, reshaping our routines, etc. Thus, everyone on your team needs to take care of their physical & emotional bodies so that you can individually & collectively meet the increased demands of now without becoming overwhelmed.
And particularly you, as the head of your team – you will bear additional responsibility & pull through this time – you need to fortify yourself. Even Anthony Fauci runs 3-4 miles a day while advising on the COVID epidemic. Why? Because our health & wellness have never mattered so much as they do now.
STRATEGY #3: Appreciate your high performers, & clear barriers for them first.
The great thing about high performers is that they tend to have an internal drive and determination to make things happen and the skills to follow through. And they are often relied on by managers and organizational leaders generally & particularly in times of crisis. They are the first to lean in, take on additional responsibility, take a pay cut, get resourceful in solving a collective challenge. And when stress & stakes are high, we can take our high performers for granted. We can fall into a pattern of assuming they’ll do whatever we need them to do (and often they will), increasing their workload yet forgetting to acknowledge, appreciate and support their efforts in the process. This is not only unfair & ungracious from a people standpoint; it’s also a missed opportunity on the strategy front. Lack of acknowledgment & appreciation has been shown to lead to decreased company loyalty, lowered productivity, & emotional burnout in the long term. In a crisis you want & need your high performers to be resourced to do their best work for as long as possible.
So as a team lead, take a few moments to recognize who among your staff is doing excellent work. Explicitly acknowledge & appreciate these people. Amplify their work. Clear barriers for them so they can continue to do the work you need them to do. Getting through moments of crises requires a team effort, and your high performers are your best teammates. While it may be tempting to focus first on those who seem like they need the most support & to divert resources in their direction, instead start by looking to those who with just a few words of encouragement, a tee up or a block cleared can actually help you shoulder the weight of this moment in time and move forward in strategic ways.
STRATEGY #4: Set basic guidelines for your team around remote work.
With the almost overnight move to remote work, a lot of people just lost access to a host of external supports that created structure & routine for their days. And they are flailing. A commute into the office may be a pain at times – and it plays a huge role in how & when we start & end our day. It dictates when we get up & provides a reason for us to get dressed. Physically being in an office dictates things like how we get work done, when we take breaks & eat lunch, when we do work, etc. And now those natural structures are gone. Some people I’ve talked to are loving the new freedom & space they have to create their own structures & routines liberated from the traditional office structure. Many people I’ve talked to are really struggling – they don’t know how to create structure & routine for themselves and this is showing up in everything from working around the clock to feeling guilty for taking a moment to talk to their children. Pretty universally, I’m hearing a theme of “I’m not sure what’s expected of me right now.” When am I supposed to start & end work? What kind of response time am I supposed to have? How do I get in touch with people? Is it okay for me to take a moment to handle a challenge with my child? How productive am I supposed to be? All reasonable questions – all questions that without clarity from you as a team lead create additional stress.
As a team lead, one of the most important things you can do to help your team ground itself and find its way in this new normal is to be clear & explicit about what your expectations are. Keep it simple – make a one-pager with a few basic guidelines for working from home, and walk through it with your team. Cover things like start & end times for work, how to get ahold of you & other team members, what hours people can schedule meetings during, etc. Make your guidelines reasonable, and update/add to them as new challenges related to remote work come up. Remember, the goal in clarifying expectations is to relieve cognitive and emotional stress, thus enhancing your team’s ability to do the work they need to while also handling their personal needs.
STRATEGY #5: Focus on “rounds of strategy” not the strategy.
It seems unlikely that any of us will be returning to a pre-COVID working style anytime soon. Remember, we are playing the long game here, and so leading your team or organization through this moment in time is something that will happen in stages. You don’t need to address or fix every challenge created by the COVID pandemic immediately, all together or before you get started doing anything. Instead, to be strategic in this emergent world, focus on creating rounds of strategy. In other words, look out ahead of you and see what’s coming down the pike – what are the upcoming challenges you’re likely to face? Then come back to this moment in time – what needs to be handled right now in order to help you address the challenges on the horizon? For example – if you know that you are going to need to pivot your products & services and that to do that you will need to engage the creativity of particular people in your organization, start by making sure they are okay, set up to do the work you need them to do, & clear on what you expect of them, rather than bypassing this immediate step & jumping straight into problem-solving mode on something a little bit further down the line. Notice what’s on the horizon. Have a general sense of what you’re going to do. Focus on making the most concrete & actionable plans for the challenges that are most proximate to you right now. By the time you’re finished executing those, that next challenge you saw on the horizon will be closer to you, and you’ll be more ready & equipped to respond to it. When things are very uncertain (which they are right now), we can’t strategize & plan too far down the line with much confidence because things change so rapidly. So we have to “plan closer,” in small increments of time, execute on our mini-plans, then make space to step back and plan for the next thing on the horizon – “rounds of strategy” rather than one strategy. So make a plan for your team for this week. Share it. Get started executing on it. Put time on your calendar mid-week to start strategizing for next week.
Third, some additional support:
This is a challenging time, and I want the people who are on the front lines keeping our businesses and organizations running through this time to feel supported. In service of this, I’m holding office hours on Friday – if you’re a leader in an organization, looking for a little bit of additional support, sign up for a free 20-minute slot. We don’t need to know each other or have worked together for you to join. Just bring your questions & challenges and together, we’ll come up with 1-2 immediate actions you can take to help you & your team find your way forward. Hang in there everyone. You’ve got this. We’ve got this.