“How are you doing?” What would you answer, right now, if a friend or significant other asked you this question? What about a co-worker? Your boss? Would you even know the answer?
Perhaps, if I asked you that question, you would start speaking, thinking out loud. You might feel your way into it, but it’s likely you would not know how you were doing when you started to speak. Or, maybe you would not want to talk about it. Possibly it would be too penetratingly deep a question for right now, requiring you to step into the moment and feel something you would rather not acknowledge.
As the COVID crisis drones on, people are stuck in or rotating through one or more of the stages of grief. Some are still in denial, waiting and wishing for things to get “back to normal,” despite the overwhelming onslaught of change that we are being expected to handle as though life were still normal. We’re in denial even though we know that normal, if it ever comes, will look very different than it did before. There will be new ways of safely interacting in a shared workplace, and many of these will become permanent practices representing progressive breakthroughs, though the very thought is anxiety producing now. There are other more personal changes. Many furloughed and laid-off co-workers won’t return. Some of these roles will eventually be filled by new people, and other roles will be re-purposed. Budgets have been re-allocated to new priorities.
Many of these changes are, predictably, being met with resigned depression, misdirected anger, or a combination of the two. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Harvard Business Review’s Scott Berinato conducted an interview with David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief. In the article, entitled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” Kessler says we are also feeling anticipatory grief, “that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain.” He goes on to discuss acceptance and says, “we find control in acceptance.” The problem right now is that the future is unknown, and it’s hard to accept that degree of ambiguity.
As a leader, you are engaging with team members wherever they are on this emotional spectrum. You might be finding yourself helping them traverse it. Kessler talks about the new, sixth stage of grief, meaning, and its importance in this crisis. Indeed, the leader’s purpose is to find meaning from it all in order to create the future. Yet what if you, the leader, are stuck? The answer: you start there. How are you doing?
You have been changed by the crisis at hand. Are you grieving for the loss of normalcy, for the loss of knowing just what to do in every circumstance that would generally be expected to arise? For the loss of touching loved ones or even new acquaintances with whom a handshake was a tactile acknowledgement of shared humanity? Regardless of what you’re feeling, you must acknowledge it and move through it in order to be reliable for others. Showing up reliably in the conversation with team members (and that’s what leaders do), is as simple as being fully present. And, presence is a very hard state to achieve right now. This experience has evoked core wounds and our unique stress behaviors have been triggered. Distinguishing your own triggers from those in the collective environment is achieved through presence.
Give Yourself a Break
Give yourself a break, literally. Rest more. Stretch your body. Slow down. Make time for things you enjoy. A very driven and successful executive told me today: “I’m working longer hours than ever but they’re not productive.” When she thought it through rationally, she simply concluded that a planned stop to the day would help her accomplish what’s needed now.
Rumination is defined as thinking about the past or the future with a negative lens. Instead of reviewing the past for the purpose of learning, we rehash it over and over in our minds – with regret. Instead of planning for the future we rehearse it – with anxiety. According to The Center For Creative Leadership’s Nick Petrie, rumination turns everyday pressure into stress.
When stuck in the stress of your thoughts, practice engaging all of your senses, including touch and smell. Go for a walk – even if it’s in your own backyard. Notice the smell of the air, the brush of the breeze on your skin, the feel of the ground beneath your feet. I have a colleague who would suddenly freeze mid-sentence, her mind spinning a list of dreadful what-ifs. I would say “Where are your feet?” That awareness promptly brought her back to the present moment and she could respond once again.
Get still and present for a just a moment – right now. How are you doing? Start there.