How to Lead When Everyone Is Shattered? | Sean Sankey

Make no Mistake

Insurance companies know that over 50% of crashes occur within 5 miles of your house. Around a third of these are in the last mile.

The demanding journey and the illusion of familiarity mean that when the end is in sight, the danger increases.

In the last mile, increased awareness and explicit action are absolutely critical to making it home safe.

Leaders and Their Teams Are Tired

We’ve had nearly 12 months of this god-awful pandemic. We’d be forgiven for somewhat switching off because we’re both depleted and the vaccine has given us some kind of hope.

However, a searing article for Harvard Business Review would have leaders think again about how to act at this particular moment; when a vaccine is here, relief is on the horizon yet everyone’s absolutely shattered.

This HBR article is worth a scan. However, what does it mean for leaders particularly in the Housing sector? Let’s think about it.

A nation depleted of energy. “Pandemic fatigue and mental gof some of the words that people use to describe having to balance home-schooling and full-time work.”

The Problem

In all sectors, incidences of staff disengagement, stress, complete burnout and sickness are on the rise.

It’s not just the healthcare system that is understaffed in large part because of staff being absent through non-Covid illness.

All across our nation, HR teams and managers in banking, service industries, all quarters of public and third sectors are having to manage significant swathes of their workforce being out or substantially less productive than a year ago.

And we all get it. Of course we do.

The mental, physical and emotional impact of the most significant social event of our lifetime has many labels.

Pandemic fatigue, work/life blur, corona-coaster, mental fog are some of the words that people use to describe having to balance home-schooling and full-time work.

It’s Been a Long Grind

One of having to navigate a constant and seeming life-threatening uncertainty, whilst robbed of all of the normal support mechanisms.

The same old messages of “now, is the time to be extra careful” and “we’ll get through this together” all sound hollow. Therefore, the general public is understandably tuning out and hunkering down.

Our reaction to the second wave needs to take account of it being fundamentally different from the first. The vaccine is tantalising but its rollout and impact are going to be painfully slow.

As the author puts it, “even though the vaccine shines a light at the end of the tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to.

She continues stating that “to move through the second wave successfully, leaders need to re-examine their personal resilience and that of their team members.”

“The second wave isn’t exciting at all. It’s just drudged without the urgency.”

The Possibility

How can we lead when the whole world is tired?

The spring and summer saw people and organisations cope with a mix of adrenaline, cortisol and goodwill. A togetherness spirit rose in the face of a new challenge that we were going to join forces in overcoming.

The second wave isn’t exciting at all. It’s just drudged without the urgency.

On top of that, we experienced the disappointment and disillusionment of the government chaos.

The flip-flopping on schools, the confusion about what is allowed and what isn’t, the perceived hypocrisy in the following guidance led to a very real problem for leaders.

How do we help our people discover the mental strength to make the last mile? How do we find it in ourselves?

Two Big Ideas

1. Find Fresh Ways to Create Meaningful Energy

No-one wants another zoom quiz or virtual happy hour.

But the basics of connection, support and engagement remain key. Leaders need to take a deep breath and draw on their creativity to find fresh approaches to energise and equip their teams. A few approaches we’re seeing are

  • Harvesting ideas – Setting up cross-functional teams drawn from different levels of the business to brainstorm creative ideas to help colleagues through.
  • Going analogue – As much as Teams, Zoom, and Whatsapp are essential parts of our every day, a physical object, letter or card sent to others’ homes lands a powerful message than cannot compete with another collection of pixels to process.
  • Relentless chunking – Breaking down projects into progressively smaller wins. Setting 1:1 assignments with scheduled playbacks to the group gives people short-term motivation. It feeds a virtuous circle of a sense of short-term fulfilment alleviating the longer-term slog.
  • Support triangles – Sometimes 1:1s can be too pressured and intimate. Putting people into newly formed triads of colleagues with a bit of structure for creating supportive conversations can breathe fresh life into helping people stay connected.

2. Find the Balance of Compassion and Containment

When you were a kid and you fell off your bike grazing your knee, imagine how your mum would react versus your grandad?

It’s likely that Mum would run over, gather you in her arms, pull you into the house, grab the first aid kit, slather on kisses, and give you a big long cuddle. Mums are great, aren’t they?

Grandad would probably have sauntered over, picked you up, dusted you off and said gruffly, “try again”.

Which approach is better?

Well, like most things the wisdom is in the middle. And it’s relevant for how we express compassion versus containment.

Compassion is absolutely needed. At our essence in Social Housing, we’ve evolved beyond asset managers.

In many ways, we’ve become a caring sector. In most settings, we’ve developed the skills of support, empathy, flexibility, and emotional vulnerability.

However, too much compassion produces learned helplessness in people.

The Right Formula

The famous psychologist Martin Seligman coined this phrase of learned helplessness in getting us to understand that when we receive “too much compassion, we simply stop trying to respond to dangers and passively accept whatever harm befalls us” even when it’s self-inflicted.

Containment, therefore, is about “stability, setting limits, raising the bar and helping each other snap out of self-pity and moodiness”. Once we lift our people up through genuine compassion, we need to exhibit some strength and help our people move beyond their justified frustration, pain, and even paralysis.

“Every good leader knows that the best way to mobilise a team is to identify and attack a common external enemy.”

The Last Stretch

“As we enter the last stretch, the greatest challenge for leaders may be to sustain energy in themselves and in their teams. We don’t quite know how long it will take to finish the last mile and we cannot rely on the urgency of the crisis any longer.

Resilience is the most fundamental quality for navigating through the chaos. Without resilience, we tend to act indecisively or follow directions blindly. If we are not confident that we have the necessary abilities, we risk getting paralyzed or subjected to forces beyond our control.

Managing your own mind, deciding to take charge of your destiny and helping others do the same is where you will find mental strength for the last mile.”

Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, “How to Lead When Your Team Is Exhausted – and You Are, Too!, Harvard Business Review (December 15, 2020)

One of the most helpful suggestions of the article is to “turn up the heat and go into fight mode”.

Every good leader knows that the best way to mobilise a team is to identify and attack a common external enemy.

Maybe this moment calls for a bit more “edge and collective defiance against the injustice of the virus”.

It’s not enough to smother people in love or try to point them towards positive and inspirational goals with the hope of “we’ll get through this soon”.

You have to call up in people a sense of “we will not let this bugger get us down”.

Even though it’s cold outside and we dread to leave our comfort zones, we need to help our people find a response that drives them towards action, resilience, and performance. This can be achieved by framing Covid-19 and surviving this last mile as a battle to fight, rather than a drudge to be endured.

The time for a fresh start is now.

What can you do to find fresh ways to energise your troops today?

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