According to many, Blue Monday (the 18th January) is the most depressing day of the year. I’m not convinced that we can say that the third Monday in January each year is the most depressive of the year (I can hear statisticians already shouting at their screen) but I would concur that mid-January can be a difficult time for many. And January this year is going to be mentally tough for many more than in previous years. We have had to endure almost a year of isolation, fragmentation and disruption with our freedoms curtailed in different ways and to different degrees.
Lockdown 1 was tough but also for some it was a novelty to do different things, and the weather was surprisingly good for early spring. Summer brought a rest bite but as winter drew near cases started to climb and Lockdown 2 arrived. But we had Christmas to look forward to (we thought). And here we are in January with the seemingly long dark and cold stretch to Easter, in another Lockdown. I have seen around me even the most “glass half-full” people I know start to waver a bit with their resilience.
For leaders within organisations this is a tough time. How can we support our people to get through the next few months until the natural warmth and daylight (and a vaccine rollout) naturally starts to brighten our people’s moods? From my experience, there are certain activities a leader can do to help their team cope with the onslaught of depressive feelings that most are having at the moment. Here are a few ideas to try with your teams:
1) Focus on something
One of the key reasons many are struggling to cope is that there is little to focus on at the moment. Motivational goals are hard to come by at the moment: holidays are impossible to book with the uncertainty around, physical exercise goals are hard with gyms shut and few daylight hours and many used 2020 to already achieve their lockdown goal. Leaders of teams can fill this void by facilitating a team meeting and agreeing on mutual goals that the team will collectively work on and achieve by Easter. This natural break on the calendar is a perfect end point as it usually coincides with the better weather and longer daylight, and acts as a marker in the diary that the team can count down to. Academic research has established Goal Setting as a proven way to raise motivation (see work by Edwin Locke). And if your team members decide on the goals this will promote that most successful type of motivators: intrinsic motivation.
2) Get the team supporting each other
You may have noticed that I used ‘team’ goals above and not individual goals. Lockdown has shown us that one of the key anxieties that team members have is the natural focus on individual task achievement when working remotely. Social conversations are being stifled by the “job in hand” as organisations have struggled to maintain levels of productivity with the challenges of 2020. Team goals have to be achieved together. This increases the levels of team member “chatter”. Physical offices are more supportive to human emotions as there is space to listen and see the emotions of others and support. The more the leader can get the team informally chatting in their absence the more emotional support there will be between team members. I have heard of teams now working for part of the day with video conferencing just left on so they can chat if they want to while working, with varying degrees of success. In essence, as a leader, your team will cope better through the next few weeks if you help make space for frequent, informal chat.
3) Set the example
As a leader of a remote, fragmented and dispersed team, you become the focal point of representing the organisation’s desired behaviour and culture. Role modelling is not often spoken about as a key leadership behaviour but in times of stress, anxiety and uncertainty we subconsciously look for role models for emotional support. The effectiveness of the concept of role modelling lies with a combination of motivation and learning. As an individual starts to identify a role model, they start to undergo a mental process of self-appraisal versus the role model and will identify one behaviour or more that they would like to emulate. This identified “gap” in skill becomes intrinsically motivating due to the strong desire to emulate the role model.
So not only does the leader motivate their team by role modelling, they also help others identify ways to grow – a great way to escape that feeling of Groundhog Day. I would advise leaders to take a bit of time out to reflect on what behaviours do they desire in the team and how do you, as their focal point, outwardly show these behaviours in a consistent manner? How do you need to adapt to be a positive role model for your team?
4) Be positive, but not too much!
We all know about Optimism and Pessimism. We often forget that there is a third member of that group called Realism. An impactful leader in tough times will try to have a positive impact on their team’s emotions but this needs to be in a way that challenges negative views and moves them in a positive way, but only as far as is achievable. The “over-positive” leader can as quickly disengage their team as much as the pessimistic leader. I like the term Bounded Optimism as an approach for leaders in these tough Covid times. Bounded Optimism is a positive approach that is grounded in the reality of the environment that you work in. Most team members know it is tough and don’t expect utopia in the workplace at the moment. Yet a leader who can help them reframe their thinking into a more positive viewpoint can very much impact a working environment in a positive way.
Reframing involves challenging current beliefs and allowing others to find new approaches to thinking about challenges. Here are two activities that you could try with your team:
- Get the team to discuss and identify positive things from the changes to how they worked in 2020. Once identified, get the team to think about how they could amplify these in 2021.
- Ask the team to identify the “blockers” to them achieving their goals over the next few months. What can they, as a remote team, control or influence out of this list? Get them to commit to quick wins in these areas. List the areas of no influence as areas that cannot be changed and therefore not areas that need to be concerned with.
Reframing is a fantastic leadership tool for shifting the mood of the team towards a Bounded Optimism approach.
We are all living through a time of great flux, change and associated anxiety. For most of us this is the biggest upheaval in our lives so far. Work is a large part of our lives and it can at the moment feel all-consuming as it has overlapped with our personal lives so much. Leaders of teams can make such a difference at the moment. The empathetic and compassionate leader who helps their team through this tough Covid winter will have a strong resilient team as the pandemic subsides in the next year of two. To find out more about leadership though the pandemic, follow this link to our report and model on the behaviours that leaders need to dial up to achieve Dispersed Team Leadership.