It’s a Marathon not a Sprint

In 2020, we’ve endured a global pandemic and a massive economic crisis, with forces that are fundamentally reshaping societies through technological innovation and business-model disruption. When I meet business people, managers, executives or employees, beyond the perfunctory answers of “I’m fine” or “I’m managing through it,” when i prompt further, I usually get responses which are more closer to the truth, like “I’m anxious and overwhelmed” or “I’m completely burned out” or “I’ve lost my sense of optimism” or even “I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going like this.”

The reality on the ground is that while positive news about highly effective vaccines gives us new hope, it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people are struggling—and that may be the case for many months to come. Add to that the fact that even if everyone is vaccinated by tomorrow, that does not mean that the economy will just start blooming. Such a deep and heavy economic disruption will need a great deal of time for it to recover. So this is more than just coping. This is a Marathon, not a Sprint. So please adjust your mindset accordingly. I still meet business owners and business managers who have not YET shook off the mindset that things will simply “bounce back” to how things were before the COVID-19 crisis. Let me put in the bold, maybe it sinks in once and for all. The pandemic and change it brought with it will likely result in permanent shifts in consumer preferences and buying behavior, business models and ways of working.

However, as Albert Einstein once said, “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” As I keep preaching, organisations have a unique opportunity to do more than just “get through it,” but to re-think and re-shape their organisations – like moving to more flexible and innovative working models, implementing new technologies in weeks rather than months or years, empowering teams and stripping down unnecessary bureaucracy and making faster decisions amid uncertainty.

My message to you as business leaders is that from the present moment of grief and disillusionment, you can still work and create a brighter future for your company and its employees. Please allow me to give you some pointers on this.

Why is it a marathon and not a sprint?
When the pandemic began, many companies and their employees mustered the energy and determination to respond fast and surprisingly well to unprecedented challenges. Companies rightfully stepped up by focusing on their employees’ health and safety as they muddled through a difficult set of threats and uncertainties. Many organisations saw leaders at all levels step up to the challenge, focus on the most critical issues demanded by the situation, band together and respond heroically and selflessly to support colleagues customers, and communities. Initially, there was also novelty in working from home and many employees were pleasantly surprised by how much could be done virtually.

But many months later, with no clear end in sight, the adrenaline rush of those early high-energy sprints has faded. Employees are now trying to sprint through what has become a marathon—an unsustainable pace. This is why we find ourselves in the early stages of a potentially prolonged period of disillusionment, grief, and exhaustion—a period that may get worse before it gets better. In the context of the uncertainty and stress of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s important to understand that this sense of disillusionment is natural, to be expected, and, based on past experiences with similar crises, a normal cognitive response to a massive and traumatic disruption. Disillusionment is distinct from general disappointment and sadness, occurring when deeply held beliefs and expectations are challenged by circumstances. At the beginning of the pandemic most of us had thought we’d be back to the workplace by now, but many are more isolated than ever. We thought work–life balance would be in check by now, but many are still working longer and harder than before, and with no end in sight.

Past crises have shown us that it can take months or even years after the direct operational effects of a crisis are resolved to emerge from the long period of disillusionment and grief that tends to follow. Hence why it is imperative for leaders to move through these phases effectively so they are able to lead with hope and inspiration. However be aware that as a business leader you are likely to be better equipped with the resources and wherewithal to move through the stages of grief, disillusionment, uncertainty and exhaustion more quickly, perhaps in just a few months. Other persons in your company are likely lagging behind . You could unintentionally make the situation worse when you are unaware of the disconnect between where you are emotionally and where other persons, like for example employees, are – thus prolonging the disillusionment and exhaustion. The key question becomes, how can we navigate through disillusionment more effectively and come out successfully on the other side much faster?

Reenergising the organisation
Despite this prolonged period of crisis, many organizations are experimenting with different approaches to reenergize their exhausted workforces and make changes to emerge stronger, together. Here we explore five ways organizations are reenergizing:

  1. Bounded optimism (mixing confidence and hope with realism): To level the slope of the downward curve and emerge stronger faster, leaders should act with bounded optimism. That is, they need to display inspiration, hope, and optimism that’s tempered by reality and help their people make meaning out of the circumstances by creating an understanding of what’s happening, and what responses are appropriate. Meaning builds confidence, efficacy, and endurance but also can serve as a balm if the outcome takes longer or is different from what is expected. As the prospect of a vaccine nears, this concept is more important than ever. Bounded optimism cautions against thinking a vaccine will return life to normal in a few months. Even if a vaccine works and is safe, it will still need to be manufactured and distributed, and people will still need time to process what has happened to their lives during the pandemic long after a vaccine is available. The leader’s role is to show compassion, and to temper hope with a realistic framework that resonates with employees. Such an approach also maintains a leader’s integrity and authenticity.Leaders who embrace bounded optimism successfully communicate hopeful messages that are less about returning to normal and more about acceptance. They relay the fact that we’re likely not going back to the way we were, but we’re going to be better than before. In other words, they shift the narrative from what’s been lost to what’s becoming possible, in a balanced way. In particular, grounding this narrative in the organisation’s purpose helps employees make sense of their new reality and regain a sense of stability, which can help reignite individual motivation, well-being and productivity in the workforce.
  1. Listen deeply for signs of exhaustion and other natural responses to stress
    One of the most challenging parts of this crisis is that, despite the overwhelming desire for a certain and perfect plan to re-energize the organisation, there simply isn’t one. Leaders who accept this fact are able to manage the energy and mood of their organisations, taking an adaptive approach that allows them to discover their way to solutions. Such an approach starts with a much deeper and more holistic form of listening than organisations are accustomed to. To create a space for employees to share how they are truly doing, leaders sometimes start by showing vulnerability themselves, which sends a powerful signal that “it’s OK to not be OK.” Perhaps more important than how organisations listen is how often they listen. It’s not enough to launch a few listening efforts and then act. Organisations must listen continually, taking a regular pulse on how employees are doing. This will be especially important over the next year, as employee moods and needs are bound to fluctuate, with the potential for great impact.
  1. Develop adaptability and resilience skills
    Research as to how people process a crisis with an indefinite timeline, indicates that there are basically three responses (i) Individuals who yearn to go back to the way things were (ii) Individuals who have lost sight of the past and cannot imagine who they could be in the future (iii) Individuals who embrace a “quest” narrative, meeting their unchanging circumstances head on, accepting them, and incorporating them as part of their identity and journey. Unsurprisingly, research shows that those who performed best where those who had the third type of response The pandemic experience can be viewed through a similar lens: a critical part of succeeding through it will involve embracing the quest to move forward. The ability to grow and develop, especially during times of change and stress, is a new and high-priority muscle for leaders to build. The best business leaders should be seizing this opportunity to cultivate a learning mindset in their people and organisations, specifically focusing on building resilience and adaptability now and for the future. Leaders who strengthen the resilience of their workforce not only do the right thing for their people but also set themselves up to succeed in the new normal of volatility and virtual work. Upskilling on adaptability and resilience can be a powerful way to improve well-being and experience, which in turn has been shown to improve creativity, innovation, engagement, organisational speed and performance.
  1. Focus on care, connection and well-being
    Since the start of the pandemic, organisations have launched myriad initiatives, ranging from wellness programs to online happy hours, or even online parties, to support employees. While these have been undertaken in earnest, they’ve often been received by employees as yet another thing to do and have failed to address the real sources of energy drain. When you think of well-being as a holistic concept, so much more can be done. Organisations need to place greater emphasis than ever on fostering and nurturing human connection and caring. One approach organisations should take to improve well-being is to hardwire recovery and self-care into organisational structure. For example, in an environment where employees already have anxiety about the economy and job security, many aren’t taking time off, and even for those who are, with nowhere to go, work seems to creep its way in, especially for top people or those with critical talent at the center of critical initiatives. In times of stress, people need time off to recharge and recover……and business leaders need to legitimize and actively role model such time-off. Prioritization is a struggle that long predates,and has massively been exacerbated by, the COVID-19 crisis. Now is the time for organisations to help create a more manageable environment for employees by helping them focus on the work that matters most. Some leaders are getting stricter with their calendars by declining all meetings in which they can’t uniquely add value (which can be a significant portion) or by cleansheeting their calendars all together. Others are talking with direct reports to help them clarify priorities and pursue more short-term, achievable goals.
  1. Unleash energy by evolving the organisation’s operating model
    The most effective leaders see the COVID-19 crisis as a way to reimagine the postpandemic organisation. They are doing this in three key ways: by operationalising and activating purpose; by reimagining the work, workplace and the workforce of the future and by creating a faster and more flexible organisational structure.Connecting to purpose can be energising in its own right, but operationalising purpose, making it a core component in how companies work, can help organisations and employees focus on what really matters: spending more time on activities that directly deliver on an organisation’s purpose and strategic value agenda, and less time on things that are peripheral to what creates value and enables that purpose. When everyone is clear not only on what the organisation is doing but also on why it’s doing it, it’s easier to strategically prioritise, to identify which work can be delayed and which meetings can be skipped. It also helps us to empower others—it turns out that many decisions not only aren’t made at the right level, but also part of the challenge of pushing decisions down is that the people making them lose sight of the larger purpose. Aligning the organisation on what really matters, the strategic value agenda, and the higher purpose can help energise the organisation not only through inspiration and meaning but also by helping delegate and empower, move faster, strategically prioritise and take less important things off the plate.Another way organisations are evolving is to reimagine the future workplace and working model. While the future remains uncertain, many executives have embraced the idea of a hybrid virtual working model to give employees the flexibility they desire. To figure out what that might look like, organisations are turning to their employees. While no organisation has the exact answer yet, many are seeing the office of the future as a meeting place for collaboration, connection,and innovation and much less as a heads-down cubical farm for individual work. Beyond the future workplace, organizations also are profoundly reimagining their operating models. One of the most interesting findings that is emerging from various COVID-19 research taking place, is that agile organisations were roughly two times as fast as their peers in reacting to the crisis. Many are experimenting with moving from an annual planning/budgeting cycle to a quarterly planning/budgeting cycle. Organisations also are seeking to build a more meaningful culture of empowerment by streamlining their decision governance, pushing decisions down to a network of empowered teams. In aggregate, the impact is that organisations are able to create value by acting with unprecedented speed, by creating an environment in which employees are encouraged to bring their talents to bear and by opening up capacity for leaders to spend more time caring for and connecting with teams.

Responding to this crisis is a defining leadership moment. By exploring ways to re-energize their organisations, leaders can help individuals view work as a place where they can grow personally, nurture their talent and live their purpose. Organisations themselves wouldn’t simply survive, but could “win in the turn” and emerge more human centered, innovative and better positioned to adapt to the challenges ahead.

At EMCS, we specialise in what we call our “coaching” services. This is not some typical consultancy service. We have a very much hands-on approach to help you re-energise your business and help it respond much more quickly through a more flexible organisational structure. Feel free to get back to me on so that we can have a chat on what our “coaching” service is all about.

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