Michael Law, Founder & CEO of Summit Strategy Group
There is smoke surrounding my home, a byproduct of the wildfires just a few miles away that threaten to swallow my sanctuary and my safety. This is just the latest assault offered up by 2020, after a global pandemic, racial injustice and protests, a recession and a deeply polarizing presidential election. I’ve tried hard to soldier on throughout the year but, to be honest, I’m now feeling the strain myself. Mostly I fear for the impact COVID-19 is having on the aging population and for the countless children and their parents wrestling with home schooling.
While 2020 is undoubtedly taking its toll on all of us as individuals, it presents unique challenges for business leaders who are struggling to keep their employees focused and moving forward. This is particularly true for industries working especially hard to keep our country moving through these challenging times.
I recently had an enlightening conversation with my friend and colleague Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a physician and resilience expert, who offered some important insights to help corporate leaders manage through today’s unique trials. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
Michael Law (ML): Dr. Gilboa, all of us are trying to manage through the repercussions of COVID-19, the resulting economic fallout, and here in California, wildfires and burnt orange skies. What impact is all this stress having on our mental health? And what are the hidden risks we should be thinking about?
Dr. Gilboa (Dr. G): We’re all completely overwhelmed, struggling to keep our lives together, and people don’t know where to look or what to deal with first. Stressful situations bring on a guaranteed chemical response in the brain. When we feel threatened, our brains release cortisol, often called the “fight-or-flight” chemical. That reaction can be life-saving in a dangerous situation. However, when cortisol is triggered repeatedly by multiple stressors, it wears down our reflexes, attention and resources. Not properly handled, it can lead to lasting physical and mental harm, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, as well as impaired memory and concentration. But there are numerous steps we can take to help our friends, family and coworkers cope better and be more productive and resilient in this period.
ML: We are all working from home, and we are all dealing with some form of crisis or uncertainty almost every day. The stress of 2020 is impacting the performance of teams working in all kinds of environments. What can business leaders do to proactively support the mental health of their teams and keep them motivated and focused?
Dr. G: Approximately one-in-five adults manage chronic mental illness themselves, and every adult in this country has a family member with a mental health condition. On top of that, an overwhelming majority of professionals say that they have been managing new or worsening symptoms of depression or anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic. This acute mental distress is affecting every work environment. Add to that financial instability and no separation between the workplace and home, these stressors lead to higher and higher levels of cortisol that can easily tip the balance from a healthy stress reaction to chaos. When cortisol levels go up, individuals look for ways to calm themselves. That drive to find oxytocin and dopamine — the chemicals that are released when we feel connected to others, or happy, safe or relaxed — is understandable, but it often interferes with the goals and deliverables that work requires.
To break this pattern and foster a healthier, more productive workplace, business leaders need to create a culture of compassion, one that focuses on the work without ignoring the human beings who accomplish that work. Create opportunities for oxytocin and dopamine within the workday by soliciting suggestions from your team for ways to incorporate humor, movement, breaks and positive feedback. Leaders who ask questions to understand how teams and individuals are feeling are taking the best first step to solving this problem. Allow space for honest answers and respond with a genuine empathy. This is a simple and powerful move. Recognizing aloud the challenges your team faces, respectfully expressing your own emotions, and modeling positive coping mechanisms will make your colleagues willing to do the same.
ML: As I look around at my friends, family and neighbors, I can see some staying engaged with their daily lives in a positive and productive way, while others are struggling to keep pace. Why is there this difference?
Dr. G: What you’re talking about is resilience. People who go through challenging experiences often come out the other end learning a few things that can help shape who they want to be as a person — that is resilience. In the context of business, if leaders can find a way to coach their employees to channel what they’re learning from this year’s challenges and apply it to the company’s mission, that will make people stronger and more nimble which, in turn, helps businesses meet their goals. Resilience is measurable and trainable.
ML: Many business leaders themselves are struggling to stay resilient. Even I have my good days and bad days. What can business leaders do to become more resilient themselves and model resilience for their teams?
DG: This is the single most important issue for leaders to tackle to strengthen their entire company because organizational resilience rests, in large part, on the resilience of the individuals at the top of the structure. Leaders also deserve to feel whole and healthy, even in the worst of circumstances.
In medicine, we teach young interns to handle an emergency by first taking their own pulse. Strong, accomplished individuals often give themselves the least empathy and compassion. Start by honestly evaluating how you are feeling. Then identify your coping mechanisms: what do you do to change your mood, improve your ability to function? Are those coping mechanisms healthy, successful and sustainable? Next, check your schedule. Would you fly with a pilot who was getting as little sleep/nutrition/hydration as you’re getting? Your team needs to know they can count on you to take care of yourself. Take one action each day that builds your resilience, and then take the time to let someone who works with you know what you did. Those resilience actions — talking to a mentor or confidant, laughing without reservation, giving up trying to control something that is beyond your control, exercising your body, to name just a few — are strengthening opportunities for you and for your entire team. You are always leading by example.
ML: How can business leaders gauge and improve workforce resilience?
Dr. G: Measuring the resilience of your workforce requires repeated interactions and observations, because an individual’s resilience changes given the timing and circumstances. For example, when businesses first interview job candidates, they do their best to gauge a person’s ability to experience and navigate complexity. They “score” a candidate on a scale from strong to easily overwhelmed. Once the candidate is placed on that imaginary scale, the business leader thinks she knows how that person will always respond to stressors. But this is failed logic because a person’s response will change given the circumstances.
The first strategy in measuring resilience is to observe a person over time, and understand that their responses will fluctuate. The second strategy is to ask your employees how they are managing challenges. The key to this conversation is to practice empathy and, importantly, to keep the threat of consequences out of the conversation. If business leaders learn to ask questions when an employee’s attitude or behavior seems off, they will be more effective in helping that employee navigate the challenge. As you get better at recognizing who lacks resilience in a situation, you can take clear steps to address those challenges and get your team moving toward your goals.
ML: Personally connecting with an entire workforce sounds like a daunting task — made more challenging by shelter-in-place requirements. Are there clear steps leaders can take to improve the resilience of their workforce and better position themselves for the future?
Dr. G: When leaders witness poor behavior, their inclination is to increase structure and enforce consequences. Demonstrating empathy is a better course, especially in a year like 2020. If a leader offers empathy to an employee, the individual’s body will release oxytocin to the brain and provide a sense of connection to that leader. That empathy allows the employee to feel heard and no longer feel the need to find someone else to legitimize their stress or anger. By spending a couple of minutes reflecting someone’s feelings back to them in a genuine and honest way, you could help that person move on and, hopefully, use the rest of his or her time more productively.
The central tenet of empathy is that you do not have to feel what your employee feels to make a connection. Empathy demonstrates that you care about their experience, not that you share it. If an employee’s wellbeing is of interest to you, then his or her emotional experience is, too. By letting them know you hear their struggle, you prove your commitment to their welfare and success with your company.
ML: What other actions can companies take to build resilience in their teams?
Dr. G: In this time when nothing is guaranteed, strong leaders must prove their company’s mission. If you say you’re about serving your community, this is when the rubber meets the road. Show your team how you keep your organization’s promises and how to make its mission come to life. People find comfort in certainty. Right now, nothing is written in stone, everything is written in sand. That is unsettling but it’s also hopeful and an amazing opportunity because nearly every aspect of our work — from structure, scheduling and logistics to purpose, creation and impact — can be changed for the better. The first opportunity is to demonstrate that your employees and clients can count on you, with certainty. In that I mean not that you can make claims on the future but that you will demonstrate the characteristics and behaviors you’ve promised to them. The second is to use the current disruptions to create positive change. Most often, new ideas — even great ones — are met with skepticism because change is hard. The current state of flux makes individuals and groups more accepting of the need for innovation. Everything is on the table to be examined and improved. Welcome ideas, suggestions, even critique from individuals at every level of your team and demonstrate your respect for their perspectives.
The third, and largest, opportunity for change is about laying the groundwork for a more successful future. Upheaval reminds us that change is pervasive. Those that use these stressors to strengthen their work community, culture and capacity will go on to survive future upheavals as well.
All the challenges we’re facing this year may seem insurmountable but that’s just not true. We have a cultural belief that people are born with the inherent ability to manage difficulty or that they’re born to be overwhelmed. That’s not the case. Resilience can be taught, empathy can be practiced, communication can be fortified. And if leaders choose to focus on these skills now, their teams will navigate the current challenges and use these disruptions to create future success.
Dr. Deborah Gilboa is a resilience expert, family medicine physician and clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. G works with executives, entrepreneurs and businesses to identify the mindset and strategies to turn stress into an advantage. She is a leading media personality seen on the Today Show, Good Morning America, and The Doctors. She is also frequently featured in the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Huffington Post.
Michael Law is the Founder & CEO of Summit Strategy Group, a public affairs campaign strategist, crisis management counselor and expert corporate communicator with nearly 30 years of experience. Prior to founding Summit, Michael was U.S. President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller and worked at Ogilvy for 21 years. He counsels governments, public and private companies, non-profit organizations and trade associations, particularly in times of complex regulatory challenges, organizational change or crisis.