Not too long ago, my coaching world was full of robust leaders on their A-game, moving their teams towards new projects, programs and innovations. In but a few weeks, these once burgeoning leaders have found themselves facing the bi-polaresque rollercoaster of quarantine, trying to keep themselves and their teams together, if even they still have a team, or a job, for that matter.
Below I share some themes that have emerged in my coaching conversations with managers in the midst of COVID-19. Some ideas may seem counterintuitive. Most are based on an understanding of neuroscience with the goal of focusing on the whole person and helping to keep the brain and body in balance.
1. Lower your expectations around productivity.
Yes, as anti-capitalist as this sounds, it’s essential at this time to restructure expectations around productivity. For one, the work environment has changed so drastically for everyone. If people came into an office before and now they no longer have a steady work environment, there are so many more factors that could interrupt their productivity. They may have kids at home. They may be managing stressful relationship dynamics. They may even be a victim of domestic abuse. Expecting the same level of productivity as you had before is unreasonable.
For this philosophy to really be effective, it has to be communicated from the top. From there, the message will trickle down to managers and their teams. If you are feeling pressured by your manager, that stress and pressure will bleed out to a team already feeling stress and so on and so forth.
2. Manage people according to how over or under stimulated they are.
Amy Arnsten, a rad neuroscientist out of Yale University, has done very interesting research on the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the part of our brain responsible for higher executive functions such as planning, good decision-making and strategic thinking. The brain, being an energy efficient organ, always seeks to be in balance. Arnsten’s research centers on how the PFC is balanced by two main neurotransmitters - norepinephrine (a fancy way of saying adrenaline) and dopamine. To illustrate this, Arnsten created an upside down bell curve. The right of the peak of the bell represents increasing stimulation in the brain. The left of the beak of the bell represents decreasing stimulation. The center of the bell curve represents optimal balance of the cortex with men falling slightly to the left as their default balanced state and women right in the center. BeAbove Leadership furthered this research and translated it into a coaching tool to help individuals understand where they might be on that curve at any given time.
Using this coaching tool in my own practice, I have been seeing managers struggle with team members being on opposite ends of the curve. In other words, their team members are either falling too far to the right and are completely over stimulated and out of balance, or too far to the left and completely under stimulated. No matter which side they fluctuate to, THE COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENTS ARE THE SAME: poor decision-making, foggy thinking, and lack of empathy to name a few.
Take mental note of where each of your team members are on the imaginary bell curve. Team members with kids often are falling to the far right on the curve. For them, it is important to figure out a way to reduce their load and have less expectations for their work. For team members with less stimulation, the challenge is to induce more goal directed behavior to increase the dopamine and adrenaline to help bring them up to balance. Goal directed management can mean setting weekly targets or goals for them adjusted to their work situation in the event their longer term goals are on hold due to lockdown. You can check in with them on those targets or set up accountability structures for them with their other colleagues. This way they can work together and check in on whether they have been able to accomplish a goal or project.
Helping your employees to regulate their PFC now may be the best preventative step to ensuring they don’t come back to the “new normal” drained, exhausted and out of balance.
3. Create certainty where you can. Offer rewards.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released IN ANTICIPATION of a reward. In other words, if someone has something to look forward to, like a trip, it’s a dopamine inducer. Once the reward is received, dopamine levels go down. Need convincing? Check out Robert Sapolsky, Standford Professor of Biology and Primatology’s lecture on dopamine here.
Wonder why people are struggling so much to even get work done? Projects once moving forward are now on hold indefinitely. Dates can no longer be set in stone. There is an unknown as to when the lockdown will effectively end. A stake cannot be put into the ground. There is nothing to look forward to. No dopamine. Again, this leads to imbalance in the PFC.
Understand that without firm dates, or concrete things to work towards or ANTICIPATE, there is less dopamine. Think of what you can focus on that is concrete or set in stone. Perhaps smaller projects can be created. Perhaps you can game-ify a project and offer a small reward to your team if they successfully complete it.
It’s important to note that some team members may need a high risk, almost impossible challenge, to elevate their dopamine levels, especially if they are highly capable and super under stimulated. For others, it could be more of a structured call to action where as a task is accomplished, there is some type of reward, or acknowledgement.
What could your team be in anticipation of that actually can occur on some concrete date at some concrete time in the near future? Is there a reward you can offer them that they may get if the project or task is done?
4. Practice empathy. Be inquisitive.
Putting yourself in the shoes of your team members will go a long way in the future towards a workforce who is already struggling with brain dysregulation. The ability to empathize is really an ability to try to feel what your team member is feeling. What’s it like to homeschool 3 kids if you only have to worry about one (or none!). Have no idea? A simple inquiry asking them what it is like for them to be where they are at, can bring you tremendous insight. And understand there may be unspoken dynamics they may not be at liberty to share with you, including domestic abuse, existing mental health issues that may be exacerbated by lockdown, and even addiction issues. Asking into your team’s situation is important. Here are a few check-in questions you can use that may prompt some deeper conversation. I send these to my own clients before our coaching sessions as a check-in. Recently one of the managers I coach said she used these as check-in questions with her team, which resulted in very productive conversations:
· What have you accomplished since our last meeting?
· What did you want to get done but didn’t?
· What feels most challenging this week?
· What are you connecting with most this week?
· How are you feeling?
· What are you noticing about yourself?
5. Create small ways to appreciate your team.
There is a host of neuroscience literature written on the benefits of feeling and expressing gratitude and its correlation to happiness. Appreciation can take the form of words of affirmation, actions, or gifts. It might even be worth it to ask your team members how they like to be appreciated in this time. Appreciation can even be stated in honoring everyone that shows up to an online team meeting when they usually are done in person. Early on in the lockdown, one of the managers I coach planned to parcel small gifts to her team members, just to let them know she appreciates them. Even better if you can send something from a local small business to your team, to support the local economy and let your team know you really value them during this time.
The strategies I’ve shared above came out of actual coaching sessions with managers I worked with during COVID-19, all of whom were adhering to shelter in place in the United States. I encourage managers as well as executive leadership to utilize these coaching themes in the next phases of the Coronavirus pandemic to mitigate the mental and physical impacts of the quarantine.