Managers Love Frameworks, Leaders Love Their People

There are managers out there, I shan’t call them “leaders” who, in the wake of calls of becoming suddenly empathic and understanding of their people in this crisis, -which is a call meant to help them focus on the Psychological Safety of their team-, have scurried and scrambled for a model to apply in lieu of doing the hard work of developing their own EQ and becoming a people leader and have unearthed the Change Curve.


They are now vociferously demanding that their teams demonstrate they are in the last two stages of the curve. Some go as far as to guilt them with comparisons to the atrociously hard situation that essential key workers are in and demand their people “match” it or “raise to the challenge”. It’s stupendously tone death and it only shows their short comings. 


Yes, it’s true we all are in different stages of the Change Curve somewhere between Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance and Problem Solving, and it stands to reason we aren’t at our most productive when we’re experiencing any of the first five states of mind, but the idea that we can force ourselves forwards through them and into the last two stages, is not only ludicrous but dangerous.


It’s also a case that even in normal circumstances, the phases don’t clearly delimitate and they overlap, in particular “problem solving” is entirely possible to be experienced simultaneously with any of the first five stages before “acceptance” has been reached, but pretending that the other states are not happening to us, could well have disastrous long term consequences on our mental health and therefore our overall performance. 


Another point for leaders to remember, is that the speed with which their employees move through these phases in a situation as massively catastrophic as the one we are finding ourselves in, can never be uniform and the idea that the whole team is at a certain stage of the impasse collectively and therefore the same words of encouragement or the same chats can happen, is just not going to work. 


There is no denying that we are all experiencing grief. There’s so much at stake and so much that has either already been lost or shall undoubtedly disappear. The way we grieve is individual, not a group behaviour and it has to be dealt with as such. Until this happened, these stages applied to one of two things when it came to manifestly experiencing them at work: either an intense personal tragedy that the individual experienced while having to carry on working or, a certain amount of change that the entire enterprise had to go through such as a big restructure, a digital or Agile transformation, etc.


Even when it came to the latter, the way employees traversed the Change Curve was a collection of individual reactions and not a uniform group one. These two are vastly different from each other in how we experience tragedy and the level of compassion we need to overcome it. At the same time, neither of these two instances are what is happening now, but rather a combination between them, where this particular instance is deeply personal for most of us and intensely transformational for the company against a backdrop of the universal character of the crisis which thankfully seems to have brought the best out of community spirit out of people everywhere. 


Layered on top of it, some of us thrust into remote working feel grief for a variety of reasons from the loss of routine, to the loss of human connection, to loss of income and to the loss of an important constant of our lives - the delimitation between work and personal life. A demarcation most needed because it enabled them to have respite, privacy, enjoyment and so forth with most of all fun and human interaction deemed unacceptable in the work place and confined to the latter and this line feels like it has been erased over night. 


With fatigue, impostor syndrome and sheer dread rampant in some work places, home was the space most were vehemently protecting as a sanctuary against the negative of the office and it has suddenly turned into the latter, leaving them mourning a perceived immense loss.


Even those people who were already remote working feel the dissolving of the demarcation at a time like this, when uncertainty and a genuine desire to match the efforts of the many heroes, sees them work harder and trample on their previous routines that protected their private recharge time. 


To top it all off, this is why we can’t even count on the change curve and its effects on our mental state to be what we are all experiencing - it is because they describe the way humans react to the known, not our extreme unknown. Whether we grieve personal loss or deal with the idea of a structural reshuffle of our role, we know what we are reacting to, what we the root is. In our new work paradigm, in the midst of this horrendous time, we don’t.


No matter which reassuring politicians tell us otherwise, we all know in our gut there is no way of knowing for a fact when and how or even (sadly!) "if" we will beat this thing. We don’t know what we are reacting to. How much of this is the new normal and for how long. Will this be over later this year and we’ll all sit in pub gardens shaking our heads and reminiscing while planning more concerts and vacations next year than we ever thought we needed, or are things going to never go back to any kind of normal and we are all actors in a B-series apocalypse movie and the end of the world as we knew it happened already? It's this extreme uncertainty, this VUCA on steroids that is the hardest to stomach.


Those stages follow each other only when we refer to known change. By contrast, for this impossibly hard kind of unknown change, they will overlap and cycle and we have every right to feel whichever one we do whenever we do and to have leaders who feel them themselves and allow us to do so while caring enough to keep us honest and open about how we feel however terrified and paralysed it may be.


Unfortunately there’s no shortcut that works in understanding one’s people sad as that is for all of us managing teams as we so desperately want to find a “best practice” way to lead them through this. What is needed is starting from a place of love and then relentlessly focusing on sharpening our EQ with rapid experimentation and open failure before we find all the ways in which we can build strong dialogue paths and an environment where our empathy can really make our people feel heard and secure to speak up and relate whether they are in denial, in a fit of rage, deeply depressed, or have accepted this new normal. 


If “managers” can’t be leaders, let go of frameworks and put their hands up willing to admit they are human and none-the-wiser than any in their teams while staying obsessed with building connection, compassion and listening, then we would have lost the opportunity to have created stronger teams coming out of this, and it will be little wonder that we feel more Psychological Safe and connected to all kinds of instant teams from community volunteer efforts to parents’ WhatsApp groups or old school mates Slack channels, than we do with our work team which is a great loss for both the company and ourselves. 


Read us tomorrow and see our video as we collate some of the methods and tips we uncovered to jumpstart training a leader’s EQ but as a first step, to “solve the problem”, they have to “accept” there is no shortcut and no miracle framework. 


Meanwhile, whether you’re still in shock or in denial, if you’re angry or bargaining or are joining most of us in being depressed but accepting and solution seeking too, just feel free to feel your feelings this week, all that stuff about not being emotional at work has been -thankfully!- cancelled.


Stay safe, stay sane and stay feeling. 

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