Reviving Teams that are Emotionally Spent
Winter weather in northern Indiana has forced me to ditch my morning walk for a 30-minute stationary trek on an exercise bike. The only thing that makes it palatable is re-watching episodes of The Office that are currently streaming on Peacock. Even with a complete awareness that the dysfunctional leadership, low staff morale, and crazy office antics are hyperbolized for comedic value, I can’t help but see streams of current reality playing out before my eyes.
The reality is, many staff teams are emotionally spent, if not completely bankrupt. According to The Predictive Index Talent Optimization Report of 2022, 20% of the workforce has quit in the past 6 months. Workers are tired and frustrated. They’re realizing that time is their greatest and scarcest asset, and they want to make the most of it, so they’re reassessing why they work and increasingly quitting their jobs to find out what truly drives them. The ongoing stress and strain of Covid, the complications around childcare and remote work, and the increased scrutiny of productivity have all impacted people’s emotional bandwidth.
Clinical psychologists today use the term emotional bandwidth to refer to the energy, resources, and emotional resilience we have at any given time to manage life. And just like overtaxed internet bandwidth that is trying to run too many apps and streaming devices, the ongoing stress, grief, loss, and uncertainty have left us anxious, irritable, and often overwhelmed to the point that we feel emotionally spent. People and teams often find themselves overtaxed and drained emotionally while trying to handle all the unknown variables and challenges that confront them daily.
Many workers push themselves beyond tiredness and beyond emotional capacities for long periods of time in order to remain effective in accomplishing the requirements of their jobs. By doing so, however, they become entrenched in a pattern of disconnection where bodies and hearts are neglected to the point of burnout, and where suffering emotionally starts to feel normal. If none of us would put up with ongoing poor connection issues with our internet bandwidth, then why do we continue to expect ourselves or our teams to try to manage life and work when our emotions “get dropped” all too frequently.
In order for individuals and teams to stay resilient and effective in these extremely emotionally draining times, it is vital that we take stock of who or what are using up our emotional bandwidth, and then devise and commit to a plan to re-order our world to get connected to a lifestyle of well-being. Here are 3 steps to reviving teams that are emotionally spent.
Step 1: Perform a diagnostic on everyone and everything that is draining you
In order to take a complete and honest look at what is causing your emotional or mental fatigue, you must let go of the false belief that you have unlimited resources to handle whatever life or work throws at you. The reality is, capacity varies from individual to individual, but no one has unlimited capacity sufficient to handle everything that comes their way. Life and work are juggling acts, and it’s important to recognize that we are navigating unprecedented times in which there are too many balls in the air. So, it is a totally unrealistic expectation that some will not be dropped or tumble the ground. At the end of the day, psychologist Ilyse DiMarco says, “This means we need to be kind to ourselves, rather than pummeling ourselves with guilt…we’re being pulled in unprecedented directions, and we’re doing what we can with the limited bandwidth we have.”
- When you stop to reflect on your emotions, what feelings rise to the top when you think of “pandemic fatigue” or “endless waiting for things to return to normal” or “dealing with multiple experiences of loss”?
- What current responsibilities or tasks overwhelm or cause fatigue? What is it about these tasks that make them so draining?
- Who are the people in your life or relationships that drain you? What is it about the person or relationship that taxes your emotional bandwidth?
Step 2: Take charge of managing your emotional bandwidth
One of the ripple effects of Covid is an overwhelming sense that life is out of control. A report from Pew Research found that over 1/3 of employees have displayed signs of anxiety and depression since the pandemic took hold – and that number rises to 55% for those who are also struggling financially. When everything around us is askew, we develop a warped view of our personal agency – which is defined as our perceived ability to act in any given situation. Having agency over emotions presents lots of options in any given situation, and thus more control over life. Taking charge of your emotional bandwidth requires a revival of a healthy sense of agency, which means speaking truth to our inner critic and letting them know who is in charge. It’s true that there’s much going on in the world that we cannot control. However, it’s not true that we have no control, so taking charge means recognizing and reclaiming all the small and big things that our volition and choice touch.
- As you look at the day or week ahead of you, what specific areas of life or work do you feel are “a given,” and what areas depend on your personal choice or volition?
- When you feel overwhelmed or totally drained emotionally, what is one choice you have made in the past or a choice you could make in the future that has impacted or could impact how you feel?
- How are you able to let go of people or situations or things beyond your control? Have you reached out for help? If yes, how? If not, why?
Step 3: Develop a plan and share it with another person or your team
In the Harvard Business Review’s article, How to Lead When Your Team Is Exhausted – And You Are Too, Merete Wedellsborg reports that even those in booming industries feel “emotionally amputated.” Others share the experience of “crying for no reason.” As individuals, leaders, and teams, we need to be very present to the reality that we are operating with an overtaxed emotional bandwidth, and the time for taking action is way past due! The problem is, many of us lack a plan to help us emerge from the mental and affective fog we’ve been wandering around in the past 2 years. It literally seems that the whole world is tired and resilience has drained away. What does a plan of action look like? It can and must go beyond, as Wedellsburg states, the “steady hand” approach or the “rapid-action mindset” that characterized the first wave of leadership response to the pandemic. Today I posit three critical elements of an action plan that are essential to effectively revive teams that are emotionally spent.
Action Plan: Set Boundaries
I believe that leaders at Behavior Elevation Academy have it right when they say we must carve out space for what really matters as we navigate the multiple life areas that demand our attention and energy. Setting boundaries is about carving out time blocks devoted to working through mental and emotional processes essential to health, wholeness, and dynamic engagement in life and the workplace.
- What or who am I going to say “No!” to?
- What or who am I going to say “Yes! to?
- What is the purpose of the time blocks I am carving out? What will I be processing or working on.
Action Plan: Align Values with Virtues (Behavior)
Values are aspirational expectations. They are ideals or goals that individuals, groups, or even nations espouse, but do not always, and sometimes seldom achieve. Virtues, on the other hand, are those principles, goals, or aspirations that have been achieved and can be observed and experienced in the here and now. Values are in principle, while virtues are conformity with the principle. In the language of servant leadership, virtues form when our values become operative – reliable dispositions and behaviors that are activated in the way we live.
- What are your top 3 values in life? What are your top 3 values in the workplace? Where do they overlap and/or how are they different?
- How do your values show up as virtues – in the way you do life, in your relationships, in how you do your work, in how you lead, etc.?
- What is at least one behavior you commit to growing as a virtue in the next month?
Action Plan: Pursue Accountability
For many people, being accountable to another human being shares the same status as getting a root canal. One of the best ways I know to numb the pain is to invite and create space for compassionate accountability, which switches our understanding from “I’m watching your back!” to “I’ve got your back!” In the words, Dr. Nate Regier, “Compassion is a leadership strategy…If you’re compassionate without accountability you can’t get anything done, but accountability without compassion gets you alienated, so the two have to co-exist in everything we do…”. I like the way my daughter says it, “Everyone needs someone to call them on their s**t, and at the same time love them for who they are.”
- Who am I going to share my plan with?
- What am I asking another person or my team to do? (i.e. How will they hold me accountable?)
- Am I open to receiving feedback, and what will I do with the feedback I receive?
- What does “success” look like? How will I know if I am achieving greater balance?
In the end, reviving ourselves and our teams will mean digging deep to re-discover those extra reserves of energy needed to move beyond survival to thriving again. In a world where mental health is now rated by insurance companies as much of a risk as smoking or heart disease, we must stop to notice the current state of our emotional bandwidth, then we must take the initiative to set boundaries, transform our values into behaviors, and invite accountability to stay the course. In his book, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum writes about a kid in his neighborhood who played hide-and-seek too well and never got found. In frustration, Robert finally yelled out, “Get found kid!” He goes on to share about a doctor who had terminal cancer who said he didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer so he kept it a secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
As people and as teams, let’s not make the same mistake. We need, we must, come out of hiding and let each other know about our limitations. Our bandwidth just isn’t adequate to handle all that we are carrying. But we also need to let them know that we have the power to choose, and we are choosing to be resilient, because we have agency, and voice, and values to guide us and renew us. May all of us be brave enough to step out into the light and into compassionate accountability that will help us find our way back to renewal and well-being.
Ritch Hochstetler, Chief Ideation Trailblazer at ULEAD