December 15, 2020
“I’m worried about the mental health of my team. They are under a lot of pressure here at work and have a lot to deal with at home. There’s very high stress all the way around.”
This from a senior leader as we discussed their most urgent leadership challenges at the close of a sometimes dire and always difficult 2020. The team had lived and worked with the challenges of Covid-19, racial justice, social unrest, and an upended economy. I followed with – “how is your mental health?”
Understandably, they wanted to keep the focus on their team. The business had cratered from March to June, which meant furloughs and layoffs; business then rebounded strongly over the summer into the fall. And now there’s uncertainty heading into 2021 with the virus’s resurgence. The entire year had been a blur of being pushed and pulled, and stressed just to keep up with the business’s needs. Office environments ceased to exist overnight, and all team and business interactions went virtual. Some team members had adapted well and showed up energized and focused amidst the constant changes and emotional turmoil of the spring. Others seemed to be treading water, their heads barely above the surface, stressed and distracted, and still others seemed ok, but he wasn’t sure.
How do leaders support the mental health of their teams? I have been exploring this question through deep listening and reflective conversations with leaders since the pandemic hit, changing all our lives. What follows are some insights, learnings, and strategies based on these conversations coupled with my own learning journey.
Well-Being = Well-Doing
As leaders, we are not responsible for the mental health of our team members, nor are we qualified. (This is also the case for coaches, supervisors, and mentors.) Leaders do have a responsibility for creating the conditions and culture for team well-being.
What is well-being?
Among the many ways to define well-being, studies coalesce around self-perceived health, longevity, healthy behaviors, mental and physical illness, social connectedness, productivity, factors in the physical and social environment. Ongoing research in the connected fields of well-being and resilience links these elements to potential genetic factors integrated with environmental aspects of our development. Chief among these well-being influencers is our family along with socio-economic status, community culture, and workplace environment. (Note: Well-being is more inclusive, broader in scope, and more cultural than “wellness,” which tends to be more about programs offered to employees.)
There is growing evidence from research and from organizations that focus on employee well-being and resilience that a culture of well-being equates to employees who are more productive and higher performing. So, well-being = well-doing.
Team Well-Being – The Leader’s Role
Well-being doesn’t flow directionally from the leader to the team, like rays of light from the sun. Well-being is about conditions, and conditions are more a team responsibility, a “We” not a “Me” as leader-only responsibility. I underline this point because more than a few leaders I am working with during these pandemic times are bearing down, doing too much and taking on too much, with the intention of helping their teams. This is a stress “worrying” response, though one rooted in caring. The co-author of “Resonant Leadership,” Richard Boyatzis, calls this approach the self-sacrificing leader, and these stress behaviors drain the leader and create dissonance, a lack of clarity, cohesion, and empowerment within the team. Being a well leader means allowing a “We” and less a “Me” approach with the team. Well-being is a process not a goal; it is a way of being well, individually and as a group.
Back to my question to the senior leader: “How is your mental health?” From this leader’s self-report, all was well with their mental and physical health. In place and sustained were strong social bonds, meaningful time with family, uplifting energy and positive emotions, and an exercise regime. They also had a reality-based perspective about the current state and how difficult things had become for their team. Since I observed no overt stress behaviors and the leader was focused and energized, I would categorize their “worry” for the team’s mental health as healthy concern gearing up for action.
Start with Yourself
The starting point for leaders is always ourselves in setting the conditions for team well-being and resilience. As described with the leader above, taking care of our own mental and physical health is the foundation; our own well-being comes first. How steady and calm are we within ourselves, mind and body? Are we mindful leaders, paying attention in the here and now, without judgment? Our team knows when we are present and when we are out of the moment, which is often a stress response. From my 360 interviews over the years, I’ve heard: “He’s here then he’s gone, off somewhere in his head, I guess. I can tell he’s not listening;” “She’s constantly distracted, on the computer, the phone. It’s like I’m not even in the same room.” If leaders are mindfully present, in their bodies and not off in their heads, they are connected with their teams; being disconnected from the present means disconnection from others, a deficit of well-being.
Well-Being and Attention
Being in the present moment is essential to well-being as it keeps us connected with ourselves and others. From the grounded present, we can control our attention and be aware of our emotions. Neuroscience has confirmed that our brains are shaped through plasticity by what we attend to confirming what the early psychologist William James knew, “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
Leaders guide the attention of their teams with their own attention. What the leader shines a light beam on or away from matters as teams will directionally track their own attention and energy to the same beam. If a leader’s attention is shaky and the light is shifting rapidly from one priority to another, then another, the team will get dizzy and distracted. This drops the energy and motivation of the team, lowering resilience. So, focused attention is fuel for the critical work of the team. The leader’s role is to guide the team’s attention toward key business and organizational priorities and away from non-value add activities. This intentional attention generates positive team experiences, the wins needed to keep motivation high.
A focus on continuous learning as a team value is another area where a leader can support team well-being. Leveraging formal and informal ways of reflecting and learning prepares the team for the future and sparks creativity while fostering collaboration. As Peter Hawkins, author of “Team Coaching,” points out, “we have to think, learn, unlearn and reinvent ourselves at the same speed that we expect our clients to.”
A team’s attention is also channeled by having a declared clear and compelling purpose. Team motivation, engagement, and performance all increase if everyone is on the same page around why the team exists and what it must do. A clear team purpose helps team members find meaning in their work, which lends to their overall well-being. Research on purpose from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that if you feel you have a purpose in life, you’re more likely to feel both physically and mentally well on a daily basis. In addition, “The 6 Conditions of Team Effectiveness,” from Harvard researchers J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman identified “Compelling Purpose” as an essential condition for teams to reach higher levels of performance. Leaders who spend their attention and time clarifying team purpose create the brightest light for their teams to follow.
It’s important to remember a leader’s behaviors are always being watched. What we pay attention to shows what we care about and who we are. As Covid-19 caught fire in March and it was clear everything was changing by the hour, what did you pay attention to? How did you show up with your team? What was your “presence” the day the tragic news of George Floyd’s murder reached your team? In one organization we work in, a senior team leader called their team together that next morning as protests erupted around the US in response to the horror of watching the murder on TV. It was an emotional and messy conversation in real time, with a diverse team grappling with a human tragedy, coupled with the complex issue of systemic racism. The leader listened a lot and asked for respectful listening from everyone. What resulted from that courageous team dialogue was the agreement to keep talking as a team and not avoid difficult conversations. The team bond was also reinforced and team members learned about each other as people beyond their roles, fostering greater empathy. Humility and a willingness to create a space of “not knowing” within a team dialogue is a condition of well-being. No one knows what the future holds. This is living with ambiguity and working with what we have right now. To quote the philosopher Winnie the Pooh aka A.A. Milne, “What’s wrong with knowing what you know now and not knowing what you don’t know until later?”
Well-Being and Emotion
We know from emotional intelligence studies that emotions are contagious, either positive or disruptive, between people and among groups, creating either resonance and well-being or dissonance and high stress. Stress and tension behaviors, left unchecked and unprocessed, will flow in both directions, from the leader to the team and the team to the leader. Since the stress emotions of fear and anxiety are high in the current environment, a potential downward spiral within the team could result. So, on any given day we will find ourselves feeling and thinking in various ways, and it’s important that the leader acknowledges and normalizes the emotions present, without judgment, in themselves and the team. Fear, anxiety, and sadness are all in our individual and collective experience, alongside anticipation, happiness, and excitement—we will have emotional ups and downs. If the ups are too dizzyingly high or the lows too dark and below ground, then we need to find other ways to take care of ourselves and seek out the necessary resources. (Note: Leaders need to be vigilant and observe team members as this pandemic drags on as some may be isolating and experiencing debilitating anxiety or depression. If you even have a question that a colleague is suffering to this degree, get the help of your HR partner and other appropriate organizational resources. There is no shame in suffering mentally; these are hard times for us all, and we need to show up with compassion.)
Leaders need to be aware of how their behaviors, and the team’s behaviors, are driven by their emotions. An example is when a leader is moving too fast due to pressures from above to revise their strategy and reorganize their business. I’m observing this play out more than ever in 2020 as companies scramble to adapt to the shifting pandemic behaviors of their customers. With this real organizational need for change, a leader has a choice: 1. keep going fast, head down and unaware of being triggered and swept away by stressors, or 2. pause, slow, and reflect enough to recognize and manage the anxiety of needing to deliver change fast. In the first case, the leader’s reactive approach pushes stress into the team, shutting down listening and dialogue. Without the space for dialogue the team struggles with feelings of frustration and disempowerment leading to disengagement. In the second case, the leader models well-being by self-managing their anxiety in real time (reflexive leadership), allowing the team to talk through what to do next together. Resonance within the team is the positive outcome, which lowers stress and feeds motivation needed to drive change.
Team well-being is more than just the mental health of the team. It is about the leader acknowledging with the team that we are all in the same 2020 storm. We find ourselves in different boats on different days; it’s a yacht on Sunday and a dingy on Monday. Sailing through this Covid storm with a team means building the fortitude to handle the emotional tides constantly shifting within ourselves, the team, and the organization. It also means building the muscle of focused attention, so we can guide the team to focus on the right priorities at the right time to achieve organizational goals.
The simple, and hard, truth of fostering team well-being is that it all depends on how present the team is on any given day to do the work on hand. We can’t solve anything for the unknown future or resolve anything for the known past. Our best approach as leaders is to encourage a reality-based, mindfully present dialogue with our team, acknowledging the difficulties and envisioning, and acting on, future possibilities.
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References & Resources