February 1, 2021
There’s no question that many people now, feeling the weight of lockdown 3 and with no clear view on the timing of any sort of ‘return to normal’, are finding it tough to stay motivated. Many are burnt out. We can gain some insight into what is going on for many individuals by way of neuroscience, specifically how the brain works and how it copes with changing situations.
Our brains consume more energy when we are faced with things that we have no frame of reference for. The brain works on a prediction loop – ‘have I been through this before?’, ‘do I know how it’s going to turn out if I have?’. When we get into a routine, our brains don’t consume as much energy in carrying out repetitive activities. But when it comes to functioning during a period of change, everything takes longer. Working with and in the unknown feels harder. It consumes more energy.
Failing to understand what people are going through has implications
Following an extensive period of living and working with so many unknowns, it would be fair to assume that people might not have enough energy left for being creative, or being able to ‘go the extra mile’. Instead, many are carrying that extra weight, which is tiring, stressful and – as health professionals have been pointing out recently – may be stoking widespread mental health issues that will need ongoing support and care. But the good news, if I can put it like that, is that addressing the first two of those problems will help to head off the third. This is where a new approach to leadership comes in.
For leadership teams in every organisation, failing to understand what people are going through has implications. People can get into bad habits, especially when they are embroiled in environments of major change, and will often beat themselves up for finding it difficult to focus, concentrate or perform. These feelings, and the resulting pressure, can grow and they end up feeling more stressed, which impacts focus, concentration and performance even more. So it’s important that employers understand the science of how uncertain situations can impact cognition. Through this, they will be able to help their employees identify what’s happening within their own brains so work doesn’t end up feeling overwhelming.
Help is at hand
When we went into the first lockdown period, people seemed to hold their breath, thinking ‘this won’t last long’. And everybody went the extra mile. People worked longer hours, wanting to show that they could work from home just as effectively as in the office. Then, as time went on, fatigue crept in. The ability to keep going started to dwindle.
Our research into human behaviour shows there are a number of things employers can do to help with this challenge. Much of it is about education – in essence, helping people to understand their brains and enable them to perform well. Lack of sleep, not enough exercise, poor hydration and nutrition all negatively impact cognitive fitness. But so does too many distractions. If you can give your brain its best chance – given that it’s working under a lot more stress, there are a lot more things to worry about, and there’s a lot less energy around – then you’re helping it to redress the balance.
For employers keen to meet the demands of today, managers and team leaders need to be equipped with the right skills so that they’re managing by outcomes, consciously developing trust, and adapting their management style to support, coach and mentor people rather than micro-managing or just issuing demands. But this is not a transformation that can be made overnight. You need to invest in training and development. If you want to maximise the amount of effort, new ideas and cognitive energy, then you need to be able to figure out how to get the most out of your people in positive ways. If they are stressed and if they’re not managed well, then they’re not going to be giving you their best effort. They’ll be gritting their teeth getting through the day, looking for the next job or longing for retirement.
In for the long-term
Many organisations that AWA has been working with also recognise it’s not just about getting through this Covid period. There appears to be near-universal agreement across the knowledge economy that most employers are going to operate some sort of hybrid work model for the future. But if we are going to be more apart from each other generally, we need to recognise the risks.
Work is more challenging when we are apart, but it’s not impossible. Science – and our own experience – points to the answer. Be supportive while people figure how to do this. Keep communicating, keep educating, and be realistic with expectations. Encourage openness and honesty. Recognise the importance of building and nurturing relationships.
Generally speaking, people are hard-wired to want to succeed – we need to ensure we give them the conditions in which they can do that.
Image by FelixMittermeier