Finding a New Pace

How has the pandemic affected your pace?

Even the best of the best have experienced challenges in finding their new pace at work. Focus and concentration have been more of a challenge for leaders, managers, and employees. And it’s no surprise: our sense of time has been distorted. Two factors explain this phenomenon:

  • Feeling stuck in a holding pattern
  • Loss of flow

Feeling stuck is not unusual for those who remain at home, or have yet to return to their previous work environment. Research in anthropology and psychology has found that when we are unable to structure or manipulate our experience of time—when our temporal agency is deprived—we feel stuck in the present.

Dr. Felix Ringel, an anthropologist of time at Durham University in England, refers to this as enforced presentism, a term first defined by fellow anthropologist Jane Guyer. And for those who do not know when (or if) they can return to work, enforced presentism continues to alter their perception of time.

Fear also alters our perception of time. According to Dr. Sylvie Droit-Volet, PsyD, who has conducted extensive research on emotions and time, threatening stimuli can distort our internal sense of the passage of time. In Subjective Time (The MIT Press 2014), Droit-Volet points to two significant contributors that distort our internal clock:

  • Changes in internal states in response to the effects of drugs or external stimuli (such as a crisis)
  • Attentional processes: when we pay less attention to time, we experience a temporal shortening effect

Leaders, executives, and managers in situations of great pressure work with qualified coaches on self-management strategies. They focus on four psychological skills that can also be used to manage enforced presentism and loss of flow, whether you have yet to return to work, are working remotely, or have made your re-entry. 

Self-management Skills

Think positively. While this sounds simplistic, our negative thoughts—call it mind chatter or self-talk—erode our efficiency, happiness, and confidence. Notice when you are thinking negatively; when you frame a situation as a problem (and distort it into a much bigger catastrophe). Then, re-think, re-frame, and revise your thoughts to the positive possibilities.

Practice relaxation. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, make time for relaxation: a process that works for you to decrease the effects of stress. For example, I find guided meditation with body scan to be very effective and helpful. Another technique is to imagine a peaceful setting—you’re happy place—and focus on your breath, or mentally scan your body from toe to head. Others find online yoga and Tai chi relaxing. Whatever works for you; the key is to make time for relaxation that is beneficial to you.

Create SMART goals. Most of us have goals at work, but do you have personal SMART goals that reflect your own interests and values? Personal SMART goals can help you stay focused on what truly matters to you, and identify the incremental steps you have taken to reach your goal.

Minimize distractions. Today, this is the most frequently reported challenge. Whether they are external (noises and interruptions) or internal (feelings and thoughts), here are two tips you can implement immediately to help protect your focus and concentration:

  • Use a 30 minute timer. We know that extended sitting is detrimental to our health; add to that tiring mental tasks, and it’s no wonder we are easily distracted and feel exhausted at the end of the day. According to recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, breaks from just one to nine minutes can help you bounce back from tiring tasks. So, get up, stretch, move around, and take a break. 
  • Re-think the need to meet. Before you send out that meeting invite (or say yes), consider the meeting purpose and time actually needed. For example,
    • INFORM: If the purpose is to share information, send the information via email.
    • DISCUSS: If the purpose is to have a dialog, send relevant information via email, invite them to read it, and request a phone call to discuss.
    • MEET: If your purpose truly requires a virtual (or in-person) meeting, create an agenda that includes: purpose/goals/outcomes, references (the pre-read resources), action items (a spreadsheet works best) and meeting agenda timeline. If you can keep the meeting under 30 minutes, schedule a 15 minute meeting.

As You Return to Work

For many, a return to work is a great relief: a “normal” routine, friendly faces, a steady paycheck. But the pandemic is not over. New routines will replace the norm, friendly faces may be veiled behind a mask, and hours may be part-time. Trepidation is expected. Optimal performance and recovery depend on our ability to address anxiety and restructure flow.

According to Dr. Erika Felix, PhD, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, who treats and studies trauma survivors, “Most people will be resilient and return to their previous level of functioning.” But by definition, a crisis is something that exceeds our ability to cope. Fortunately, there are steps leaders can take to help everyone cope better.

Return to Work Requires Anxiety Management

In a recent Harvard Business Review (June 2020) article, Dr. Julia DeGangi suggests three strategies leaders can use to manage anxieties in the work place:

  • Allow greater flexibility in performance management. Avoid over-investing in processes and micromanaging schedules.
  • Communicate clearly. Provide clarity, context, and reinforcement of priorities.
  • Demonstrate mental toughness. This means perceiving, understanding, using, and managing your feelings. It requires appropriate demonstration of emotional vulnerability at the highest leadership levels.

Remember: anxiety can be a sign of productive growth. Leaders who communicate appropriately about messy issues can alleviate anxiety and model resilience. This sets the stage to restructure flow at work.

A New Zone Focus

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has studied the phenomenon of zone focus or "flow" throughout his career. “Flow” is the zone state in limited form, but has the same attention characteristics. “Flow” is a sample state of entering the zone that leads to optimum performance.

Based upon his research, Dr. Csikszentmihaly theorized that four elements must be present to get into the flow state:

  • Presence of a challenging activity
  • Perception that your skills match the challenge
  • Clear goals
  • Availability of instant feedback concerning your performance

When these elements are present, an "order in consciousness" occurs. And, it is this phenomenon that helps people immerse themselves in an activity, find a new pace, and have fun doing it.

The New Face of Change Management

Leaders and managers are testing their assumptions and abilities in change management as organizations, lines of business, and teams are asked to quickly pivot in their roles and responsibilities. Many employees are being asked to take on additional work, perform new tasks, work in new environments, or under increasing pressure. Everyone is affected.

Even in times of crisis, a swift, top down approach to manage change simply doesn’t work. Two theories explain this:

  • People are hard-wired for homeostasis: we have a natural tendency to resist change, especially change that is imposed. You don’t have to look far to see examples of this today.
  • Change is occurring all the time. Every person, and every process, is undergoing change. Leaders and managers often fail to recognize and tap in to this.

But when all employees are engaged through-out the process of change, meaningful change can occur. Employees who understand the obstacles and principles, have their concerns and questions answered, and can contribute with their experience and knowledge engage in meaningful change.

This is no easy task, especially in times of crisis. Managing meaningful change begins by engaging in, and managing conversations.

The Basis for Meaningful Change

Have you noticed how leaders who speak louder, cajole, argue, and push incur greater resistance?

In their attempt to influence how people behave—their purpose or process—they fail to address the needs, desires, and agendas of those they want to persuade. This approach only serves to foster a closed, or fixed mindset.

For example, leaders and managers of offices that were closed need to examine what changes are needed to ensure employee and client safety. Many factors need to be considered, including (but not limited to) work spaces, processes and routines, new or temporary policies, and the feelings and circumstances of returning employees. While many are eager to return to work, there remains a level of uncertainty, apprehension, and stress in doing so.

Managing meaningful change requires the engagement of each employee in the decision-making of where, how, and when they work. Of course, the level of flexibility may vary depending on circumstances, however, leaders and managers can make a conversation meaningful with two-way dialog: listen, ask, mirror, and reflect back what is heard. Ask what is needed, and discuss anticipated changes. Employees who participate in decisions that directly affect them have greater confidence and adaptability, including necessary physical distancing, the wearing of masks, and other new hygiene protocol.

Leaders who maintain an open-mindset engage to learn. Offer compassion, honesty, and openness. And remember: leaders and managers are role models for the changes they wish to see.

Consider this: the voice of divergence and dissidence can be a catalyst for innovation and growth. Unfortunately, there are times when leaders fail to recognize their worth, or the opportunities they illuminate. Some leaders ignore, dismiss, or go so far as to demonize those who point out problems.

Alternatively, leaders can foster assertive diplomacy: they create environments where it is safe to complain and collaborate on meaningful solutions. Great leaders are masters in emotional conflicts. Rather than resist, they receive and offer feedback to create positive results.

You see, not only are humans hard-wired to resist change, we are also hard-wired to avoid pain and suffering. But these survival traits actually hinder us in creativity and meaningful change, often necessary in high stakes situations.

Effective Assertive Diplomacy

To encourage assertive diplomacy, model the behavior.

  • Listen first. A leader’s ability to listen signals that he values others’ ideas and input.
  • Keep it low. People know where power lies. You don’t need to advertise it. If you model quiet power, you can remain calm when tempers fly.
  • Act decisively. The payoff to reflective assertiveness is decisiveness. You demonstrate strength by acting confidently. Even if you need some time to think before taking action, you can keep people informed about how the decision-making process is progressing.

Consider how Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) responded to the crisis of the Great Depression. Nine days after his inaugural speech, FDR persuaded would be hoarders to return their cash to the banks. Within a month, 2/3’s of withdrawn deposits were re-deposited. The NYSE rebounded, with the largest one-day gain in history.

FDR managed meaningful change by addressing needs. He succeeded by taking action and managing fear.

Managing Fear

Managing fear is not about denying fear or ignoring it.

According Dartmouth’s Distinguished Professor Vijay Govindarajan and Columbia Business School Faculty Director Hylke Faber, authors of a Harvard Business Review article (May 2016), change is about managing fear: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of fear itself.

Have you ever listened to the recording of FDR’s Fireside Chat? While there wasn’t the same opportunities for two-way dialog like political and business leaders have today (from daily press briefings to virtual meetings) FDR laid out the actions and steps to address concerns, without feeding fears, or inciting resistance.

Change Management: The Power of Why

Managing through change can be a real crucible test for leaders today. To be sure, intense, unplanned, and traumatic events have the power to transform leadership abilities. But great leaders can prevent fueling fires, pivot with purpose, and lead others to positive, meaningful change.

The basis of change management begins with an open-mindset. Great leaders manage meaningful change by managing conversations, fear, and taking action. Their vision, ideas, and changes take flight by answering the question, why.

Why taps in to our subconscious thoughts, the part of the brain most responsible for decision-making. It is heavily influenced by feelings and drives for survival. This part of the brain stimulates the thought, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) and begins the analysis of trust-worthiness.

When the request to pivot addresses why and is linked to a higher purpose, listeners can sift (filter on value), sort (decide to align), and take flight (ignite with passion and purpose).

While well-designed changes are required for businesses to pivot, they won’t inspire engagement unless they tap into values and purpose—into the hearts of those they wish to engage. Basic needs, like safety, must be fulfilled, but maintaining motivation and engagement requires something in which to believe. It provides context for all our efforts and sacrifices, and sustains our energy for the tasks at hand.

Align with What Truly Matters

Leaders who manage meaningful change ensure the proposed changes are in alignment with what truly matters:

  • Why we are in business
  • The difference we make in the world
  • Our most important purpose

When this topic comes up with my clients, we discuss the importance to understand, and be able to articulate:

  • Why is this change important to your organization?
  • How is this change important to the people you serve?
  • Why is this change important to all of the employees?
  • What is its functional benefit to customers, clients, vendors, and all stake-holders?
  • What is the emotional benefit to them?
  • What is the ultimate value to your customer?
  • Why is this important to you?

If you don’t know and cannot communicate why you want specific changes, how can you expect employees to engage in changes?

As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business at Harvard Business School and director and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Persist, pivot, and persevere, and there’s hope for finding another successful path.” 

Tips for Employees: The Art of Complaining in Change Management

Employees are often in the perfect position to see what doesn’t work in an organization, and are important collaborators in meaningful change. But, it takes assertive diplomacy. There is an art in complaining up, down, and sideways.

Meaningful change management is a conversation on what truly matters to all stake-holders: the employees, their managers and leaders, the shareholders, vendors, and those they serve. Clearly, not all bosses are secure in their authority, nor are all employees comfortable in challenging authority figures. But those who persist; those who are willing to rethink options, assumptions, and focus on ideas, not personalities, can implement meaningful change.

  • Focus on the facts. Everyone is prone to bias and blindspots. Ensure your points are based on fact-based evidence, and be prepared to back it up with verifiable resources and research. Dig to find other points of view so you are prepared to counter them.
  • Test your assumptions. Before presenting your ideas to your boss, find people who can play devil’s advocate and explore your assumptions. They will either disprove your premise and prompt you to rethink your course of action, or they will validate your path and boost your confidence.
  • Understand the difference between correlation and causation. When there isn’t a lot of research or science, correlations may be the only evidence available. But, just because there’s a link between two issues doesn’t mean one provoked the other.

Just as leaders and managers should begin their appeal for change with why, so should the employee. Why is this issue important to you? Why is it important to those you serve?

When sharing your opinions, differentiate between facts, perspectives, and feelings. Use “I” statements:

  • “I have found…”
  • “I believe… “
  • “I feel…”

Select your audience. To initiate and collaborate on meaningful change, you need to engage with other collaborators: someone who has the desire and power to collaborate on a solution. Before you choose your audience, be clear on your goals. Do you want to vent, build a coalition, identify collaborators, or prepare and test your complaint?

Identify solutions. Be prepared to contribute to collaborative solutions for your complaint. Identify the outcome you are seeking, and the action you are proposing. Always emphasize the solution when describing a problem.

Choose your tone and emotions. A complaint usually arises from an emotional place. However, communicate in a calm, rational manner. Appeal to emotions with direct, factual information that reference the values under which your organization operates.

Successful Change Management Today

We’re facing unprecedented times as we pivot in the ways we do business. Many leaders are paving the way for others to follow, sharing lessons learned and common mistakes that can be avoided:

  • Communication is inefficient, often one-way.
  • Plans are developed top down.
  • Change is incongruent with organizational values and culture.
  • Support and resources (emotional, physical, mental, spiritual) are inadequate.
  • Negativity is not managed.

Managing Negativity

You don’t have to look far to see negativity today. Images and words are everywhere. While it is critical that we don’t ignore problems, we do need to understand and manage the impact of negativity.

Negativity has a greater effect on our well-being (our psychological state and processes) than positivity. As John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister point out in their new book, The Power of Bad (Penguin Press, 2019), “The negativity effect is a simple principle, with not-so-simple consequences. When we don’t appreciate the power of bad to warp our judgment, we make terrible decisions. Unrecognized (and unaddressed) the negativity effect can promote fear, phobias, tribalism, and resistance to meaningful change.”

Great leaders manage negativity with a few key principles and techniques.

  • Recognize and acknowledge negativity: in the images you see, the words you hear, the tone you use. Consider alternatives, and refer to and/or share these through-out the day.
  • Showcase good news: specific images, stories, and/or headlines of employees modeling desired behaviors and achieving positive result.
  • For every proposed change, point out four things that will remain the same. These could refer to mission, values, purpose, policies, processes, places, people, etc.

Negativity narrows our focus to why something is wrong or won’t work. It prompts immediate, survival-oriented behaviors, including resistance to change. In contrast, a positive mindset broadens our perspective; we feel better, engage, learn more and expand our creativity and productivity.