If you have been following along with my most recent newsletters, I have gotten curious about how we can make our work and team environments more “user friendly” and psychologically safe. Safe enough not only for all of us to feel we can admit our mistakes without recrimination but safe enough to say when we are not, in fact, doing as well as we want to be. Here, I want to unpack a few more obstacles to this aspirational reality - some personal, some organizational.
When the Enemy is Us. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy: uncomfortable and therefore unwilling to give voice to our own pain or weakness. I recently broached this subject with a group of doctors. They had been discussing the difficulties they were facing having to front up daily to work during a pandemic, with patient loads—with often more critical symptoms—on the increase. I asked them about how they supported each other during these times. While these doctors felt that their work culture was supportive in a general sense, they were more ambivalent about personally asking for help, and definitely uncomfortable with the idea of admitting when they were struggling or not feeling their best. “If that was the case, I should just pull myself off the job completely” was the prevailing sentiment. Yet, the spirit of team camaraderie and “we are all in this together” made that decision more difficult than it sounded for some.
This is the rub, isn’t it? We default to an “I’m either okay or I’m out of here” mentality…but then don’t actually leave. We suffer silently, we soldier on, we pretend we are okay. This plays out physically when we come in sick, more willing to infect others than sitting it out…until we absolutely can’t.
It makes me think that we could use a better “early warning system,” the degree of self-awareness to know when we are starting to struggle. That no-doubt-elusive place where we recognize that we are tired or irritable or confused or short-tempered or frustrated [insert your trigger here] - and not only are not ourselves but our performance starts to suffer.
This is where personal mindfulness comes in. That honed ability to notice what’s happening with curiosity. The ability to pay deeper attention to even the uncomfortable or unpleasant rather than ignoring, distracting, or tamping down. A skill worth developing (I can help with this, just saying).
Yet...the Organizational Also Bears Responsibility. And while some of this tendency sits with our sometimes gritty inability to know when to give up and when we are incapacitated, not all of this is our burden to bear. The doctors talked of the unrelenting, and in fact, increasing, patient loads they were seeing. Public servants talk about the ever-present “do more with less” mentality of government organizations. One organizational leader I met with recently wondered about the dual realities his organization was facing. Staff burnout was on the rise while the organization was continuing to implement a program of structural change that included, by his count, 22 separate change initiatives scheduled to be implemented in the last months of 2021 alone. With all this work needing to be done and changes to implement, how can we, in good conscience, opt out?
Nevertheless. If reports about employee welfare are to be believed, if the Great Resignation is in fact a “thing,” people are reaching a breaking point. With too-high workloads, with intolerant workplaces, with uncaring leadership. People are leaving their jobs at the highest rates seen since 2000. For those of us unwilling or unable to leave our workplaces, however, the current situation may well be unsustainable. Can we consider how we might re-work our approach to our work? Can leadership flex to the realities of our time and prioritize employee welfare? One could well argue that, if organizations want to hold onto their people, if coaches want to retain their athlete numbers, some change is necessary. Change that is more substantive than the company that put out sleeves of Tim Tams to acknowledge RUOK Day.
When I talk to management about this reality, not all are tone-deaf to the issues at hand. But often, their concern is couched in terms of, “I know my people are struggling, but don’t know the right thing to do.” Just like the idea “good-enough parenting,”—just be good enough, you don’t have to aspire to be a perfect parent—it seems like management just needs to care enough to try. To communicate, to ask, to check in, to build strategies and solutions based on what they are hearing.
Sally, a team lead in our state’s local government, expressed her concerns for her team and wondered how she could help. Like most everyone else, Sally was working from home while also homeschooling and caring for her two children 5 and 2 years old. One day, she herself “woke up” to her own work-home unsustainability predicament and decided to move herself and her two children in with her parents. The extra hand available for childcare has been a game-changer, allowing Sally some time for herself and time on the job. She could then focus on her team, doing so with regular check-ins and listening to what they wanted and needed. Sometimes just her support was enough, but some members felt isolated and without more regular support. Sally created regular half-hour Zoom check-in and chat sessions with her team—cultivating her interpersonal mindfulness if you will. Feedback suggested that having regular forums during work hours where people could share their concerns and frustrations created a heightened sense of community and enhanced team cohesion.
Here are some other ideas about how we can support ourselves AND our team in the interest of co-creating a next-generation work culture.
Team Member-to-Team Member Support. So what CAN peer-to-peer support look like? I broached the subject of psychological safety in my last newsletter, the intentional culture development that made it safe for personal or interpersonal vulnerabilities to be expressed. Team members are empowered to honestly and transparently check in - both with themselves and with teammates. If I am tired or struggling, I can put my hand up for support…and get it from my teammates. And am ready and willing to reciprocate as needed.
Get Used to Asking. It can be hard to break the “mental toughness” habit and even think about asking for help…but then the actual asking can be doubly fraught for those of us with little experience in this space. In both medicine and the military, one of the fears is that others won’t trust me if I admit I’m struggling. Yet, if trust is based on our “fudging of our truth” with teammates, then how robust can that kind of interpersonal trust be? When asking for help, I have to trust that my request will be met in a straightforward manner, taken seriously, and acted upon in good faith. As the person on the receiving end of the “ask,” I trust that the requestor is asking in good faith, ask the clarifying questions I need to, and if I can, provide the assistance. It is only through these practices—risking and finding it to be safe—that these habits can be built.
Take the Breaks You Can...and Should. Team members modeling break-taking can be tremendously important, especially in high workload cultures. These breaks can be as basic as making sure to eat your lunch, and periodically getting up from your desk. For people who think there is no time to rest on the job, then it might be about the micro-break. The “meditate while walking to the bathroom” break. The “walk slow/deep diaphragmatic breathing break” on the way to and from your car at the beginning and end of your day. Or the “one-minute grounding meditation break” before the contentious meeting.
If the Great Resignation is to be believed, many workers are seeing this time of flux and change as a wake-up call to a different way of living and working. A way that prioritizes self-care for ourselves AND our colleagues AND our workplaces so we can get back to enjoying this thing we call work.
As always, I am interested in your thoughts and experiences.
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org