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The Secret to Supporting Your Workforce in Critical Times

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Emotions can be hard things for managers to deal with. Traditional thoughts on business might tell you to ignore or control feelings — that they are messy or have no place in the office. Of course, we know that isn’t true. Emotions are a big part of daily life, and there’s no avoiding them at work.

So how do we approach feelings when emotions are heightened and people are working apart?

Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien are coauthors of the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Their focus is organizational design and how people interact with one another at work. Both argue that as we live and work during the pandemic, there are small actions each of us can take, day in and day out, to improve this stressful situation for everyone.

The first step — and you’ve heard it before — is to not shy away from empathy.

Easier said than done, we know. But beyond offering a sympathetic ear, there are some tactical approaches they recommend, starting with being mindful of other people’s schedules and not shying away from shaking up old workplace routines — for example, by doing an audit and clearing out unnecessary meetings from team calendars or shortening their duration.

For Further Reading
Liz Fosslien is head of content at Humu, a company that nudges people toward better work habits. Mollie West Duffy is an organizational development expert and consultant. They are the authors of the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work (Portfolio, 2019). You can learn more about their work by following them on Twitter and Instagram and by visiting their website, www.lizandmollie.com, where you can subscribe to their newsletter. You can also read their recent MIT SMR article, “Managing Stress and Emotions When Working Remotely.”

Leaders should recognize that even they will be wearing their emotions on their sleeves at a time like this — and, Fosslien and West Duffy note, recognizing the style in which they typically express those emotions is really important. That helps leaders avoid unintentionally spreading their own negative emotions.

Fosslien and Duffy have much more actionable advice to offer in this week’s episode of Three Big Points.

Subscribe to Three Big Points via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.

Transcript

Paul Michelman: I’m Paul Michelman, and this is MIT Sloan Management Review’s Three Big Points. Each episode, we take on one topic that leaders need to be on top of right now and leave you with three key takeaways for you and your organization.

Feelings and emotions can be a hard thing to deal with as managers. Traditional thoughts on business might tell you to ignore feelings — that they have no place in the office. Of course, we all know that isn’t true — feelings are a big part of daily life, and there’s no avoiding them at work. So how do we approach feelings at a time like this — when emotions are heightened, and people are working apart?

Mollie West Duffy: If we don’t address or acknowledge our feelings at work, they come out in unproductive ways. It’s not that they go away. And so the best thing is to acknowledge them and learn how to actually use them in a healthy way. Those are pre-COVID [and] even more important with COVID.

Paul Michelman: Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien are coauthors of the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Both look at organizational design and how people interact with each other at work. And they argue that during life in the pandemic, there are small actions each of us can take, day in and day out, to improve the situation for everyone. The first step — and you’ve heard it before — is to not shy away from empathy.

Liz Fosslien: So obviously, everyone’s going through a lot. And at the same time, leaders feel pressure to keep the business running, to ensure business continuity if and when more offices reopen. Empathy is the best thing you can do for productivity. So if people are scared, if they feel overwhelmed, if they’re kind of just under a firehose of things that they need to do, they’re going to get stressed. They’re going to burn out. They’re not going to be productive. So leading with empathy — and we’ll go into a few specific ways that you can do that — is actually the best thing that you can do in this moment to enable your people to still be productive.

Paul Michelman: Easier said than done, we know. But there are some tactical approaches they recommend — starting with being understanding of schedules and not being afraid to mix up routines. That could mean doing an audit and clearing out unnecessary meetings from team calendars. Or it could mean shortening meetings.

Liz Fosslien: This seems very simple, but actually for me, personally, has had enormous benefits. And it’s to schedule 25- or 50-minute meetings. So if you’re used to being in an office, you also go from one meeting to the next, you’re standing up, you have time to go to the bathroom, grab a snack. You’re chatting with people. It’s this sort of informal moment when, one, you’re getting a break, you’re getting some physical activity, and you’re also getting to connect with your coworkers. And that doesn’t exist if you’re going from 10:00 to 10:30 Zoom to 10:30 to 11:00 Zoom. It can be really hard to build in those times — even if it’s just [to] do five jumping jacks. And there’s so much research that shows that these little, quick breaks do a lot to increase our productivity, make us feel better, and ultimately help us combat burnout. So making sure to build those times in — and the nicest way to do this, especially as a leader, is to make it explicit by having these little five- and 10-minute breaks built into people’s days and calendars.

Paul Michelman: Communication right now can feel overwhelming, and leaders need to be aware of that. Consider switching certain interactions to email or phone calls instead of hours on end of Zoom calls. Or maybe recognizing the impact your communications have on people can be useful.

Liz Fosslien: You want work as much as possible to be a source of meaning and to be like a place of support for your people. You don’t want to pile on anxiety, especially if it’s unnecessary; people’s plates are already incredibly full. There’s a big difference between sending an email that says, “Let’s chat” or “We need to talk” — especially if you send it late at night — and sending an email that says, “I got your deck, appreciate the efforts.” Imagine if you get this email from your boss; you’re going to question why it was sent so late. You’re going to analyze how it was addressed. This is obviously when we were still back in offices, but you’re going to be really confused, and you’re immediately going to be like, “I’m getting fired.” And so as a leader, you want to prevent people from going down these unnecessary anxiety spirals.

Paul Michelman: For leaders accustomed to tracking metrics and obsessing about productivity, it’s good to reframe things as learning goals and to measure effort, not just output.

Liz Fosslien: Performance, right now — it’s harder to measure than it used to be, partly because it’s measuring things like access and availability and caretaker status. So really, as a leader, emphasizing that you appreciate people’s effort, that you want them to take this time to learn, to experiment, to try new things. This is also in a way a fresh start because people are working remotely, often for the first time; implicit in that is building in a little more flexibility.

Paul Michelman: And leaders can also model this behavior themselves.

Liz Fosslien: Finally, as a leader, you play a great role in setting examples. And so I really, really encourage you to take a day off. One thing is to also look, if you’re a leader, at benefits usage. So are people actually taking vacation days?… This is an intense time of job insecurity, and so the best thing you can do to encourage people to take a vacation is to actually take one yourself. And that means try not to answer emails on that day. In the long run, a day off is not going to end the world. And it can have huge benefits in terms of how your people feel, if they feel supported, and whether or not they actually are going to take the breaks that they need as well. A quick illustration of that: It’s not just work, work, work, work that makes us productive — it’s all the things we also do to kind of preserve our sense of self and our health and our mental well-being.

Paul Michelman: Empathy is just the beginning here. Managers also need to make an effort to connect with their employees and teams in order to effectively do their jobs in these critical times.

Mollie West Duffy: Even if you work across time zones, and even if you have a lot of things that come up operationally that get in the way of communication, if you feel strongly connected to your coworkers, it can transcend those other two barriers. So how do you do this? How do you build more affinity distance? So the first one is to make any time that the team comes together a positive interaction. So maybe that’s transitioning into “What’s one thing that we’re grateful for before we start doing the work?” or “What’s one thing that’s been working really well, even though we have been remote?” or “What is an unexpected positive of us having to work remotely as a team?”

Paul Michelman: Leaders should communicate cultural norms in simple, clear ways.

Mollie West Duffy: Creating something called an “It’s OK to” list. And it’s a list of things like: It’s OK to sigh. It’s OK to take a break. It’s OK to take a walk. It’s OK to ask a question. It’s OK to not know the answers to everything. And what it’s doing is making these permissions explicit. So often when we join a new organization, or we are younger in our careers, it’s like, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to do. What is allowed? What is permissible?” Then slowly over time, we figure it out. And now, we are all new to working remotely, and so we’re all figuring out what is permissible. And I think having a conversation as an organization to create this is a really helpful activity. So we did this with an organization recently, and things came up like, “It’s OK to turn your video camera off for some of the time during the day. It’s OK to work eight hours a day but not necessarily always between 9 to 5. It’s OK to not show up to all of the company happy hours.” And by doing this thing together, you are surfacing these questions that people have, and you can make a decision of like, “Yeah, that’s OK.” But even just pinning it on Slack or however you do it in a Google Doc is really helpful.

Paul Michelman: Duffy and Fosslien also point out gratitude is key.

Mollie West Duffy: So research shows that the most common time when we get praise and gratitude is all these in-between moments in our day. So before a meeting, after a meeting, walking down the hallway, it’s like: “Hey, great job with that last meeting.” And we miss those in-between moments now. So make it a habit at the end of every day to reach out to someone and say, “You did a great job at that meeting this morning,” or “I think you’re doing a really good job with that workstream.” Just make it sort of like a shutdown ritual at the end of every day, because you didn’t most likely have a chance to do that in the in-between moments.

Paul Michelman: And finally, they advocate for leaders to do something tough — what they refer to as selective vulnerability.

Mollie West Duffy: So what we mean by this is opening up while still prioritizing stability and psychological safety of your team. Really tough line to walk, but [it’s] really important to share, which builds trust, and then not overshare, which destroys it. So the first one is figuring yourself out. So the first couple moments, minutes, hours after you’ve had a strong, emotional reaction to something, you may not be able to pinpoint exactly why you had that emotion or even what that emotion is because you are still in the middle of it. So taking a step back and saying, “OK, I’m feeling extremely frustrated right now. Let me take a walk around the block, whatever I need to do so that I can figure out what frustrated me and how I can articulate that to my team so that I am sharing it with them in a productive way.” So an example of this is that I used to be a consultant at IDEO, led a lot of teams, and I felt myself getting extremely anxious and uptight and frustrated one day. And I realized that it was because I’m somebody who really likes to get things done ahead of time. I hate procrastinating. I hate leaving things until the last minute, and my team was tending towards that direction. So once I was able to figure that out, then I could go to them and say: “You guys know me. I really, you know, I hate procrastinating. I know that that’s unusual, but what can we do to make sure that we’re getting this done on time so that I can take a step back and just trust what’s going on with the team?” And so we talked through the timeline, and I trusted them. I was able to take a step back. But if I had just gone to them in my moment of extreme anxiety and frustration, that would not have been a great conversation.

Paul Michelman: Leaders should recognize that even they will be wearing their emotions on their sleeves at times. And recognizing the style in which they typically express those emotions is really important. That helps you avoid what they call being “emotionally leaky.”

Mollie West Duffy: You can actually have what’s called emotional contagion. And the way that works actually is if I’m in a bad mood, and I go to work and I spread that bad mood to my colleague, and then my colleague goes home and is in a bad mood, and she can spread that to her partner. It can transfer all of the way from me to somebody that I don’t even work with. That’s how far emotions can spread. And so by flagging your feelings, you can prevent them from spreading. So I think copping up to this idea of like: You don’t have to have a great day every day as a leader, you are a human, but people are going to be looking at you as a leader longer and harder for your emotions. And they’re going to be reading into those emotions more of like, “Well, the boss is in a bad mood. Is that because of something that I did?” And so you want to be extremely explicit of like, “Hey, I’m just frustrated. It has nothing to do with you.” Put that out there. You can move on.

Paul Michelman: That was Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien, coauthors of the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.

And now, three big points about managing your workforce in these critical times.

Number one: Decide to lead from a place of empathy.

Number two: Reconnect with your team on a regular basis.

And number three: Practice selective vulnerability.

Remember, you can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. If you’d like to support our show, please post a rating or a review on whatever podcast platform you prefer.

Three Big Points is produced by Mary Dooe. Music by Matt Reed. Marketing and audience development by Desiree Barry. Our coordinating producers are Michele DeFilippo and Mackenzie Wise.

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