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Overcoming COVID Exhaustion

The following is a transcript from our podcast episode, “Overcoming COVID Exhaustion“. 

Overcoming COVID Exhaustion

At the time of recording of this episode, the United States has just exceeded 300,000 deaths from COVID-19. Many states have tightened up restrictions, including where we are in Virginia, where we’re now under a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew.

We’ve been through this before – less than nine months ago. But this time, it’s different. The adrenaline is gone; phrases like “we’re all in this together” are now considered trite, if not completely insincere. Put simply, people are tired, and among those are the business leaders that have fought to keep their team energized, to keep their customers coming back, and quite frankly, to keep the lights on.

There’s a vaccine on the way but we’re still stuck with the uncertainty of any side effects they may have, how long it’ll take for daily cases to decline, and when restrictions will be lifted in the areas in which we live. For many of us, we saw the news and maybe celebrated very mildly and got right back to work since we have to focus on today and that vaccine means very little to our businesses today.

I recently saw an awesome article in the Harvard Business Review by Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, an organizational psychologist in Denmark. She wrote this article about how to lead an exhausted team when you are exhausted. As leaders, we’ve spent the year as ducks on the water: displaying calm, focus, strength, and optimism above the surface but fighting like hell under the surface to keep things moving forward – if we’re able to move at all.

The long-term effects of this type of leadership often include shortness of temper, lack of mental clarity, wildly changing emotions, even insomnia, and serious depression. That’s where many of us are right now and the last thing that we or our team is looking forward to is another virtual happy hour.

So, what should we do as leaders to keep our teams – and our sanity – intact as we get through the final – and possibly worst – wave of the pandemic?

In a word, it comes down to resilience, but we have to look at resilience as something different than what has gotten us this far. When the pandemic and shutdowns began, we were fueled by adrenaline to bring our teams together, help out those hit hardest, and do so with far more energy and focus than what we can pull together today. That excitement is now gone from our teams and ourselves.

Instead, we now need to draw our resilience from what Dr. Wedell-Wedellsborg calls “psychological stamina” – a deeper source of strength that draws more from our values of persistence, determination, and all-out badassery that rejects the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic. It works in the same way that a marathon runner is determined to get through the last mile, only it’s completely in our minds.

To build our psychological stamina, we need to re-think some critical parts of doing business, as well as how we communicate with and lead our teams. With the holidays upon us, now is a good time to give some thought to working on these changes and hitting the first of the year with a drive that comes from a more long-term source of energy.

The first thing to think about is how you prioritize the fires that you put out. My friend Karl Sakas often asks me if I’m chasing issues that are important, or issues that are urgent. At first, I considered them to be one and the same – an issue of semantics. But just as I am in how I sort laundry, I was very, very wrong.

The best way to distinguish the two is like this: important issues move you closer to a goal, whether that’s personal or professional – things like planning, relationship-building, training, and yes, even marketing. Important issues are the ones that are most often delayed or ignored because they don’t scream at you to give them attention.

Urgent issues keep you in the now. These are usually things thrust upon you like meetings, team interruptions, emails to be answered, and so on. They come with a quick dopamine rush when we accomplish them, so we feel like we’ve made the right choice.

But you see, we often chase those issues that are urgent – the issues that seem to smack us in the face every day and demand our attention but, unlike the important issues, don’t positively impact the business. Until you recognize the difference between urgent and important, you’ll stay on this hamster wheel of feeling accomplished at the end of the day, but you’re doing very little toward really growing the business.

Where it gets sticky is when issues are important and urgent. We see these at Imagine in the cases of a hosting server going down or a PR crisis for one of our clients. These situations check both boxes and need to be addressed immediately.

Here’s a great way of looking at it: draw a table of two columns and two rows. The top row is the important row, with “Important And Urgent” in the first cell and “Important But Not Urgent” in the second. Label those cells 1 and 2, respectively.

Name the cells in the bottom row “Not Important But Urgent” and “Not Important, Not Urgent” and label them 3 and 4, respectively. This is what’s called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, and it’s a great way to sort out your business’s daily priorities. The job is to put as many things in the top row and as few things in the bottom row as possible.

You’ll never be 100% in the top row because life – as well as your team – requires things like meetings, downtime, and so on. But work to prioritize your actions by the numbers in each cell. For example, what’s considered both important and urgent is in the cell labeled numbered with a one – and should be your first priority. The one next to it, labeled number two, should be your second priority. Organizing your tasks in this way will make sure that you’re focusing on what really matters to you, your team, your customers, and your business. You’ll also maintain more of that psychological stamina since you’re not wasting it by chasing things that matter very little.

Here is a diagram that you can use for your own planning.

Now that can be a powerful tool in re-aligning priorities but there’s much more to consider – namely, your team. For them, you need a balance of what my friend Karl calls “warmth and competence”. Yes, my friend Karl Sakas is a very smart guy.

First, let’s talk about warmth. I can say with absolute certainty that mental health is an issue in some form another within your team. Isolation, fears of the disease, job uncertainty, and so on all contribute to mental health. A recent survey of the 270 insurance companies in the world now rates mental health as being a health risk equal to smoking.

We as leaders need to take this issue very seriously. We need to have open conversations – and sometimes private ones – about the challenges our team members are facing. These conversations can’t be structured; they need to be conducted organically and never rushed. Our job as leaders is to listen and stay as long in those difficult conversations as those conversations require.

We also need to show that we are human, and we don’t always have the answers. We should show our concerns and share our uncertainties with our team members for a couple of reasons: first, they’ll trust what you say you know because you have no problem with saying you don’t know something; second, opening up will show them that it’s okay for them to do the same.

Next, make clear your appreciation of each person’s intrinsic value. The term “intrinsic value” is an investing term that simply means the actual worth of an asset, not just what it can be bought and sold for. It calls for complex calculations and whatever but when it comes to your team member’s intrinsic value, we’re talking about them as people – what they contribute to the culture or team as well as their job-related results.

Point out something well said, an idea that moves a project forward, even an attempt at a joke to lighten a tense situation. Doing so shows that you appreciate your people for who they are, not just what they can do for the business.

Those are ways to add warmth to your leadership, but they must also be balanced with competence to keep things moving forward. Competence helps you identify a situation, maintain awareness of your surroundings, and provide guidance and stability to navigate the challenges ahead. Competence is often compared to the psychological term “containment”, which refers to setting boundaries and practicing high emotional intelligence.

As a leader, you can exercise this by keeping your team challenged but not overwhelmed, allowing them to accomplish achievements on their own, setting and maintaining standards, and giving team members those much-needed pep talks when emotions get on top of them.

I mentioned balance earlier and that’s critically important. Too much warmth can soften one’s drive for accomplishment, so be warm but don’t pamper. Your compassion should energize your team and help give them a sense of value.

Too much competence can come across as cold and shut people out and even magnify the effects of the stress that they’re dealing with.

As you work to maintain that balance, the next step is to set everyone’s sights on the challenges ahead. As any good sports coach will tell you, the best thing you can do once the team is in rhythm is to give them the challenge to conquer. Fortunately for businesses, we have no shortage of challenges.

A few targets include what you and your team can accomplish in Q1. What part of their process can they improve? How can you collectively tell COVID to shove it and beat last year’s numbers? The options are endless, as is the potential of a team that’s guided by clear and important objectives by a leader with the right mix of warmth and confidence.

By all accounts – or maybe my cautious optimism – 2021 will be the year we beat COVID. Apart from that, everything else is up in the air. It’s up to us to consider every setback as temporary, consider even the smallest victory as a cause for celebration, and to give our teams the strength and confidence to not let this pandemic – or anything – get the best of them.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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