Updated: Sep 24, 2021
Lessons from supporting NHS staff and teams, at scale.
Since the start of COVID, we have been directly supporting national NHS teams who are leading innovation, change and primary care. Alongside this, we have delivered www.project5.org which has supported over 1,000 NHS staff towards continued working, increased confidence and reduced anxiety. All of our work is research orientated and we are learning fast.
Our learning is proving effective in providing workshops and in developing our training model, for supporting people on a national level. We regularly hear now that time spent in our programmes is translated to increased energy, confidence and changes in leadership approach. The learning continues and will evolve with time, but sharing what we have learned now will hopefully benefit more than the organisations we are able to touch.
This piece represents the first of three. In the next two, I will address the energy of leaders themselves and the energy that organisational development can harness, through planning and systemic tweaking.
The energy of many teams has depleted. It is fair to say that the energy of people has depleted. The impact of enduring lockdown and all that it brings is being revealed as we live it. There is no previous data to really indicate what to expect or how to survive it. What we are seeing is that the shifting nature of how we live is disruptive to our psychology and brings with it adapted approaches to work and living, that seem to offer solutions whilst also causing us to feel generally tired.
Beyond the common narratives of zoom fatigue, eye strain and schooling our children alongside work — are the more subtle shifts that seem more difficult to articulate. The absence of human interaction that allows spaces where we can relax and have fun. The environmental repetition of encased living with restricted exercise opportunities. The general sense of routineness and the completion of most days with more time spent sedentary than active. They are cumulative and strike as a new challenge at the very core of us as beings.
People are talking about fatigue, but also in the context of anxiety, low mood, concern about their health and a sense of cluelessness about what we are meant to do to combat it. There is a real risk that we develop a kind of learned helplessness, where control feels unavailable, wins seem on pause and we simply lay down and take it. The problem with learned helplessness is that once the control is given back to us, we may have lost the initiative to seize it.
I’ve read mention of Psychological Stamina and war-like mentality. But I really hear people referring to something more akin to living in an isolation cell, where we are tapped for our resource once in a while but provided little opportunity to refill the tank. This psychology is something leaders need to understand. We need to build approaches to address it. The risk of pushing for performance at this time is that we risk alienating those who feel too tired to push and creating a divide between those who feel they can push and are now carrying the team.
Leading towards energy
Let’s be frank. We as leaders are often tired too. For the first time as a leader of my own company and a Psychologist supporting others, I seem to be sharing the same challenges as all of my clients. I don’t have all of the answers, but this is ok — we have some, and I have learned to embrace uncertainty and to promote others to embrace it (I have written more on this here).
Some of the learning we are sharing with leaders at this time, which seems to help:
It is okay not to know the answer.
It is okay to say, “I don’t know” to your team, when questions are asked about the future. Modelling certainty can lead to proving that you are wrong or put pressure on you to be right. Teams often feel anxious but it can be validating for them to hear that this is a shared experience.
Rather than offering solutions to unknowns, remind the team that you have confidence in them to solve the unknowns collectively. Invite them all to offer ideas and solutions, for a collective idea about what might be the answer.
The team don’t need to get it right every time, they just need to be good enough. This means that you, as the leader, lean on them to lead trials of ideas and to join together around learning from them as you progress.
Find reasons to celebrate as a team. When you try something — celebrate. When it fails — celebrate what you learned. Don’t go overboard to the point of patronising, but do authentically share your appreciation of a team who are helping you to be successful as a leader.
Have short term goals
Make sure that short term goals are easy to get to and that you notice when the team get there. Communicate them frequently.
Have a vision
Keep a long-term vision. This helps people to realise that you trust the organisation to survive and for the future to be less about COVID and more about business as usual. Be sure to openly communicate your vision in team spaces, to help all team members to get their own focus off immediate fears and future ambitions.
Enable don’t save
Work towards hearing what the team need to succeed and support this. Ask team members to check-in emotionally so that you can hear how your team feel. Make this a human enquiry, not a survey. Don’t try to save your team from their own distress. Rather, hear what they feel and keep this in mind as you interact. Offer people what they might need to succeed.
Work hard to see what people are doing each day. Maybe introduce a ‘man of the match’ approach, where you spot something in your team each day and reward a member of staff for all to see on the excellent contribution they made. This can be small, the way they handled a client or the way they cheered the team-up. Create a culture of noticing and rewarding.
Lead meetings with positive language and a forward-thinking style. You may be exhausted and fearful, but you need to manage this in your own leadership spaces or coaching. Do not project this at the people you need to activate to enable your success.
Be compassionate to them and you
It is fine if your team feel low or anxious and tired. Many of us do. This is likely a normative response to being locked in. Be able to hear it, empathise and then move on towards encouraging success ato work, with your support.
This is true for yourself too! I have written about self-compassionate as a leader here and will write more next time on how to lift your own energy.
Redirect firefighting topics to solutions
Responding to crisis and pressure conversations with queries about how to get a solution is an effective route. We’ve used this approach with over 1,000 NHS staff and have evidence to show it works. Find out what your team think, how they might be able to solve problems, what they need from you to get the problem solved, what it will look like when it is solved and who can start off with solving it.
Teams are an amazing resource when activated and energised. As a leader, you can play with your own approach to support this for teams. This doesn’t mean you have to be full of energy. It means that you support a culture that authentically believes in a future when everything will be okay and is aiming itself at that — despite the pressures of today.