Before COVID, I led a high performing, intact team. There are twelve of us and we all used to work in one office. I hired three new people just as the stay-at-home order was instituted, and I worked hard to do everything I could to onboard them and get them up and running using virtual meetings.
Among the twelve of us, we had almost every possible scenario: one single mom homeschooled three young kids, one had two college kids who moved home but not enough internet bandwidth to cover everyone’s needs, one was extremely ill with COVID and couldn’t work for two months, and one was in a rocky marriage that deteriorated steadily under the pressure of being together 24/7. Another person, whose spouse was laid off, was faced with needing to bring in more money or they would potentially lose their house. I was able to successfully lobby for a substantial raise for her (she was due anyway). One was able to bust her mom out of the memory care home she was in, but then needed to be on call at all hours to take care of her.
It was one thing after another. Not a day went by without some new challenge. The crazy thing is that we made it through the worst of the pandemic with no appreciable impact on our results. Now my organization is planning to bring everyone back to the office and I am worried that we may not make it through this particular test.
I have a couple of anti-vaxxers on my team who refuse to come to work until the Delta variant danger is past. The parents need to work from home until they can make safe arrangements for their kids. And the rest don’t think it is fair for them to have to have come back when the others don’t.
I don’t see the problem here. We have managed beautifully through this; why is everyone acting like five-year-olds NOW? I am exhausted from the constant change and the need to manage everyone’s needs. I am trying to stay reasonable, but at what point do I just tell people to shut up and grow up?
It sounds like you have been nothing short of heroic and you could really use a break. So my first question is: have you planned some vacation for yourself? I think taking some time off from the constant drama—and your workload—would go a long way toward helping you get back to your very service-oriented, understanding self. When you are ready to say things you know you will regret, it is time to step away. Like so many others, you are probably thinking that you can’t take vacation—but you must.
I will also ask the next obvious coach-y question: How are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting the exercise you need? The rest and sleep? Are you able to get support and direction from your own manager? It sounds like you are on your own with this situation, so if your own manager is unresponsive or simply MIA, perhaps you might find support and direction elsewhere in the organization. Reach out to your partners in HR and see what they have to offer you. We have created a treasure trove of resources for leaders just like you that might help.
Ultimately, though, you must take care of yourself so that you have the energy and grace to take care of others.
Why are people melting down now? Well, for starters, much as we wish it were, this isn’t over. From what I can tell, there are still risks and people are tired of worrying. The messages from the media are very confusing and concerning. Our leaders are even confused. It is hard to know who to listen to or trust. Uncertainty on this scale is exhausting for everyone. It taxes our brains and makes it hard to think straight and control ourselves. You’re tired. Everyone is tired. People are sick of finding silver linings and being good sports. So this is the time to dig deep to find those extra resources of empathy and compassion.
It looks like you are going to have to design a go-forward plan with a hybrid approach. It clearly isn’t going to work for you to simply mandate how the team will function moving forward. The first step would be to have everyone on the team weigh in about their preferences, needs, and wants. Speak to each person individually first, and then brainstorm as a team. Some folks will want to come in more than others, but you can all agree to come in on the same day one or two days a week. Given how well you all managed to get through the last 16 months, there is no reason you can’t collectively craft a plan that allows for flexibility and fully leverages the fact that it seems safer to gather in person now than it did a year ago. Those who are worried can continue to wear masks. Or, if necessary, stick with your virtual model until you are 100% certain that it is safe for everyone to go to the office every day. No one should feel pressured or feel like others are getting special treatment if you have been able to operate well up until now.
The opportunity here is to find a new way to work—not like before the pandemic, not like during the worst of it, but something fresh that takes peoples’ reality into consideration. If people feel heard and understood they will be much more likely to make the effort to make everything work for the whole team.
You have made it this far, Fried. Take some vacation, get some rest, and put yourself first for a change. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to be patient, kind, and considerate, and how easily a plan falls into place.
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.
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