Feel Like Your Team Is Losing It? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

My team is losing it. I have eleven employees, all of whom are used to coming into the office daily with the occasional WFH day for doctor appointments, big deliveries, that kind of thing. When we all were told to WFH a few weeks ago, I thought getting everyone set up with the technology would be the biggest hurdle. I was wrong.

It. Is. Not. Going. Well.

  • Two employees have young children who are supposed to be doing school at home. The kids are running amok.
  • A few people have high school or college kids who are out there running around, doing God-knows-what and making their parents sick with worry.
  • Two employees are taking care of elderly parents because the regular caregivers stopped showing up. They are trying to figure out how to keep the folks safe and in groceries.
  • One person is quarantined with a new boyfriend who, it turns out, is not a nice guy.
  • Two people live alone and are so lonely, I can feel the loneliness vibrating through the phone. They IM me in the middle of the day and ask what I am doing.
  • I am almost 100% certain that one person is day drinking. Others have talked about problems with eating junk food while they are stuck at home and have gained weight and feel cruddy about it.

How do I know all of this? Because they all tell me. Everything. I’m not sure how it happened, but suddenly I feel like a full-time therapist. This has not always been the case. I’ve always maintained proper boundaries when we were all at work. But now life and work are all scrunched together and it is messy. I feel like my historically very solid team is made up of a bunch of lunatics who can’t get a hold of themselves.

We are all sick of conference calls where everyone is on camera. I am tired of looking at people’s messy hair and sweatshirts. I am tired of hearing cats, dogs and screaming children in the background of every call. BOY, am I sick of people’s children.

Frankly, I am sick of people’s lives interfering with their work. What can I do to stop the madness?

Sick of It All

Dear Sick of It All,

All of life is certainly being thrown into the blender right now, all on camera, and messy is right.

I worked from home for many years, and people would always ask me how I stayed focused and managed to not just watch TV all day. I always just treated my working hours like working hours—and it never crossed my mind to not just work during my working hours. My kids were trained, literally from birth, that when Mommy was working, she was not to be disturbed. My team was made up of professionals who behaved the same way. I never realized until this new WFH explosion how much most people rely on the structure of coming to work to manage themselves as human beings in relation to all of their other commitments.

But it makes sense. We create daily routines, practices, habits, and boundaries to be successful at work. When all of those get blown up in one fell swoop, well, you get what you’ve got—which is a 3-ring circus.

You’re already doing something very right, which is listening. People will tell you stuff only if you listen—so if you feel like your group’s therapist, at least you know you have their trust. This is not nothing. It is a really good thing to have going for you. Well done.

Now you need to step up as a leader and rise to this occasion. It’s time for you to stop judging and blaming your people—who, to be fair, have no prior experience in how to handle themselves in this new environment. It’s time for you to put yourself in service to your people. It’s time, Sick of It All, for you to suck it up and lead.

Stop complaining about the chaos. It’s your job to create order. You’ve allowed your team to drop their professionalism and default to just scraping by. It’s your job to call on your people to get a grip and step up to meet this new challenge. It’s time for you to step into the ring and be the ring master. Put on the top hat; pick up the megaphone. And keep the whip and chair handy. You may need them.

Here are some ideas for how to tackle this situation:

  • Call a mandatory team meeting as soon as possible. Make the entire meeting about chartering the team to function at its best under the current circumstances. Share your observations about the reality you’re observing; i.e., how messy things have become. Say that you need to call a time out, get a re-do, and start over with some new rules. Share that you have some ideas for some possible rules but that you want the team to create them together. Have everyone on the team share their biggest challenges and brainstorm as a group how you might help each other overcome each one. No blame, no judgment, just reality. Discuss what would work best as norms that each team member can adhere to. The more you can agree as a team, the more likely everyone will make the effort to comply with the team standards.
  • Request that every team member come to any and all required meetings dressed for work. You can be a role model for looking like you are at work. My own boss—who is easily putting in 12-to-14-hour days—showed up on a 6:30 am call this morning in full makeup, superb hair and her usual elegant professional outfit, complete with jewelry. I guarantee that all 127 employees on the call noticed and sat up a little straighter. It makes a difference.
  • Try experimenting with shifting work hours. Some of your people may find it easier to go back to work after the kids have gone to bed. It might help to give some of your employees the flexibility they need to meet all of their responsibilities.
  • Have one meeting a week that’s just for connection and fun. Presumably, you are all in the same time zone, so you could do a coffee hour, lunch time, or maybe a happy hour where everyone comes dressed as their favorite rock star, animal, etc. And everyone gets to introduce their significant others, kids, or pets. One of our sales leaders recently showed up to a web conference as Britney Spears before her famous meltdown. It will be talked about forever and become part of company lore.
  • Work with each individual to tackle their more private challenges. Be in touch with your HR leader to get details on your company’s Employee Assistance Program—it almost certainly has one. EAPs can address a broad and complex body of issues affecting mental and emotional well-being, such as stress, grief, family problems, psychological disorders, or alcohol/other substance abuse. As a lifelong addict (cigarettes—I’m not proud of it and have used the AA system to manage it my entire adult life), I can attest that addictions are skulking in the corner waiting for just the right crisis to pounce. I’m grateful to have an addiction, because it has given me a lot more compassion than I would otherwise have. I think it would be nearly impossible for someone to understand just what a struggle addiction can be if they’ve never experienced it themselves. If you don’t have any experience with managing one of your own, I encourage you to dig deep to find some compassion. I think it’s fair to share your suspicions with your day drinking employee and simply request that they wait until the end of the workday to indulge. Maybe it would be as simple as saying “I notice the work you do toward the end of the day tends to have more errors. I wonder if you might think about taking a stretch break in the afternoon?” It’s easy to rationalize behavior when we think no one notices, so just making the person aware that someone is paying attention might do the trick. Of course, if you’re worried that bringing it up may damage the relationship, don’t do it. You’ll use your best judgment. The thing that matters most is the quality of the work, so stay focused on that.
  • Be clear with each of your people that if there’s ever a time for them to call in the cavalry, it’s now. There’s no shame in asking for help. I just saw an interesting article today about the dangers of extreme loneliness. Combined with the toxic effects of anxiety and depression, it’s no joke and should be taken very seriously. Don’t be the only one that your lonesome, stressed employees lean on—it’s too much for one person.

The fundamental requirement for being successful at work is that your people be:

  1. Crystal clear on expectations and deliverables; and
  2. Constantly reminded how vital they are and how valuable their contribution is.

Your job is to make sure that each team member stays focused on their daily tasks and is clear about how they add value. This will keep them more engaged and also set the stage for you to re-charter the way your team operates under these new, extremely challenging conditions.

A fun e-book about the qualities of High Performance Teams can be found here—and any practices you glean from it will help you under any circumstance. But for now, you need immediate help on how to rally your troops, right this minute. Here is a useful article on leading in a virtual environment—and there is a free webinar on the topic coming up on April 16.

I really do hear your frustration. It’s hard. You’re probably reading all these suggestions and thinking “OMG, this is so much more work for me.” Yes. Yes, it is. Leadership is figuring out what to do when there’s no one to tell you what or how to do it. Leadership is going the extra mile (or ten) to help your people thrive and shine. No one is going to fix this for you. You’ve got yourself and your team and you’re going to have to muddle through it together. It’s up to you to call the reality as you see it and extend the invitation to your team to pull it together and re-group. You can be firm with your expectations as long as you are also patient, kind, and generous.

Remember to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself so that you can be the leader your people need right now. The good news is that by the end of this experience, you’ll be a stronger leader in general and you’ll have a whole new set of skills. This is your chance to become the leader you were truly meant to be.

Love, Madeleine

PS: I know, children are annoying. And Other People’s Children (referred to as OPCs in our household, along with OPDs—Other People’s Dogs) are even more so. Just remember that they are the future. Somebody’s ten-year-old is going to do your hip replacement in 30 years, or will be your dependable plumber, mayor, or dentist. And your employees or someone just like them had to raise her. So when you hear one in the background sounding like a howler monkey, you can console yourself with that thought.

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Feel Like Your Team Is Losing It? Ask Madeleine

  1. Thanks Madeleine, I am facing some of these challenges as well and I really like your idea about having coffee and chatting together. I will propose this to my colleagues tomorrow. Thanks again!

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