I was chatting with a CEO last week about how the crisis is 2020 and how it has affected employees’ mental health. He confided, “As leaders, it’s time to remove our bulletproof vests.”
It was a powerful reminder that during hard times, we must admit we don’t have all the answers. We aren’t superheroes. We must be more vulnerable, admit our anxieties, and display empathy for our people’s concerns.
In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 45% of adults in the United States reported their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress in 2020. That means just about half of us are reeling from the effects of COVID-19, social unrest, and the economic downturn. I’m seeing it in the organizations we work with. Many older workers have about had enough and are thinking about retiring, younger workers are increasingly anxious about job security, and managers are panicking—trying to drive sales and cut costs without anywhere near enough attention on their people’s wellbeing (those human beings who do the work).
For our book “All In,” we partnered with Willis Towers Watson to analyze what the best leaders did to build high-performance cultures during the great recession of 2008-09. We found those who had the best financial results had teams where employees felt engaged, enabled, and energized. These leaders made the human challenges of the crisis their highest priority.
What follows are just a few of the ideas I’ve seen managers using to help create a more compassionate team culture:
Walk In Their Shoes
While empathy is often seen as a mental exercise—imagining how someone is feeling—the best way to be truly empathetic is to roll up your sleeves and actually walk in their shoes. Of course, time is tight, and many of our employees are still working remotely. That’s why we need to spend quality time with our people as they are working, and not just in formal meetings. In regular weekly check-ins, we must carefully ask how things are really going, digging below the “fine.” We must peel away layers of the hierarchy until we are literally face-to-face with employees in their natural habitat.
Embrace Your Rule Breakers
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon during stressful times. The rule followers—those great employees who always do everything by the book—often don’t know what to do anymore. What worked in the past isn’t working anymore. Yet most organizations have rule breakers, those radicals who do their own thing, who swim upstream when everyone is going down. In good times, we try to bring these folks back to the herd. But in crisis, it’s the radicals who often thrive. Chances are, your radicals have already found ways to make sales or reduce red tape or make do in this new world. One bright senior leader I know has paired each of her rule-breakers with one of her rule followers to great effect. It’s helping the timid to see that it’s okay to take chances and “get off the porch” as she calls it. She is leveraging the contrariness of her radicals and it is reducing anxiety for them (since they now have a voice and are valued) and the rule-followers (since they have someone to help them move forward).
Some leaders think it is necessary to withhold positive sentiments in tough times to keep the pressure on team members. “If we keep them on edge, they’ll work harder” is the thinking. That mentality is about as valid as a Blockbuster Video free-rental coupon. Pressure increases anxiety, and anxiety undermines productivity. In comparison, research from Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis shows that leaders who are more grateful amid difficult circumstances can help people cope. “In the face of demoralization,” he explains, “gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.”