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Leading an Overwhelmed Team? Here's How to Get Their Mojo Back.


 — March 25th, 2024

Leading an Overwhelmed Team? Here's How to Get Their Mojo Back.

Many leaders I work with observe a consistent, puzzling pattern.

On the one hand, their team is working hard, and there’s often a frenetic feeling of overwhelm.

Yet, on the other hand, the disconcerting truth is that somehow the outputs and results don’t quite seem to sync up to the level of effort and resources invested.

What gives?

I’m intrigued by this dynamic, which I hear about quite consistently across sectors, industries, and locations. As I wrote about in my piece WTF is Going On? my sense is that it’s the product of several factors combining, including:

  • A pandemic hangover effect where every incoming message on email, text, or chat feels like a crisis—we are twitchy, our nervous systems are shot, and our discernment skills are fried.
  • Generalized “catastrophe burnout” resulting from the relentless stress of COVID, war, climate change, political extremism, and economic crisis.
  • Universal change fatigue tied to the pandemic, relentless transformation in the workplace, and the cataclysmic impact of generative AI.
  • Widespread disengagement and disillusionment in work, amplified by a resentment that somehow the deal has changed. The fundamental promise of meaningful work as a ticket to financial stability and home ownership has crumbled. For the first time, we have lost a sense of confidence that our children’s economic wellbeing will be more prosperous than ours.
  • The global recession and the pandemic have depressed innovation and connection. People sought refuge in their homes and had little energy to spare for positive forward motion. At work, this same instinct prevails.
  • Digital overwhelm and the ubiquity of the hyperactive hive mind in the workplace. Recent studies show that the average attention span of an employee is 47 seconds, and that wholly half of interruptions are coming from ourselves!
  • As the traditional boundaries and time constraints of in-person work have crumbled, many people feel overwhelmed because they are, in fact, trying to do two jobs at once—their employment and parenting. Many families have chosen to forgo expensive daycare and instead are trying to juggle full-time work and focus with the constant demands and priority attention of looking after young children.
  • The insidious creep in bureaucratic processes was established in an attempt to address the risk of the unknown and shore up stability and control. The unintended consequence of this crushing administrative burden is an epidemic in learned helplessness, dis-empowerment, and the normalization of phoning work in.

In the context of these factors, the essential question is: how can we raise a team’s metabolism?

From my experience with leaders, the most practical avenues to explore are:

Sharpen the Focus on the North Star

The first step foward achieving forward motion is to clarify the North Star. Employees are craving a sense of crisp, clear direction, and many are unmoored by organizational chaos and clutter. Generally, I find that teams are information-rich and meaning-poor—a combination that sets up a downward spiral toward disengagement and alienation.

To get unstuck, think in terms of a lightweight process to define a muscular statement of intent and use storytelling to animate what success looks like. Employees deserve a clear sense of where they’re going and how they’ll know they’re on the right track.

The most effective approach is for leaders to clearly define the North Star and then have the courage to focus on the what and let go of some of the how—inviting employees to step up and contribute ideas and energy to advancing the cause.

This balance between clarity and creation can have a transformational impact on results, including employee experience and engagement.

Edit the Organization

There has never been a more urgent need for leaders to edit their organizations. After all, we are all gorging ourselves on empty-calorie information diets of Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Sadly, many organizations have piled on with high-fat corporate speak, dense employee communication, and heavy bureaucracy.

Leaders are wise to attend to the cost of this informational clutter and keep in mind that racehorses need to race. Employees don’t come to work every day with an ambition to plow through hundreds of emails and catch up on endless strings of chat messages to have to figure out what’s going on and how they can best contribute.

Employes want to do their best, and their employers have a responsibility to enable that to happen.

Here are specific steps to achieve more signal and less noise:

  • Creating a team communications charter to set guardrails on how the group shares ideas and information efficiently (here’s a good example from Gustavo Razzetti);
  • Hosting unlearning sessions with teams to identify processes, habits, and assumptions that are holding employees back;
  • Coaching employees to manage the surface area of their attention so that their energy and focus can be maximized;
  • Eliminating burdensome bureaucracy by creating lightweight processes using agile or swimlane techniques.

At the heart of moving from chaos to calm is intentional leadership. Leaders play a pivotal role in setting expectations and role-modeling expected behaviors and mindsets around how the team collaborates and communicates.

Build Community

In the current environment, organizations need to break out of rigidity to become regenerative. This imperative calls for empathetic leadership that is supportive, imaginative, and brave.

This process begins by breaking free from outmoded models of change management that may get you bodies but not souls. The alternative is to embrace community as an instrument of change—inviting employees to participate in co-creation and reinforcing their sense of agency and belonging in achieving forward motion.

Goodbye command and control—hello open communication, connection, and culture.

Working on the connective tissue of the organization, and investing in creating a culture that is respectful and fosters belonging is essential. After all, fundamentally, humans are social animals—part of the existential disruption of the pandemic was the erosion of foundational structures of belonging and connection.

Organizations that can satisfy that emotive need are those that are set up to win.

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