April 7, 2020
This week is our third of being home together all day every day. Except for the runs, walks and bike rides around the neighborhood, and the herculean effort that getting groceries now is, we are all here. In our corner of the global we – it’s truly not so bad – our household is made up of twin 17-year-old boys and me. They like each other and me. I like them too. We all get along pretty well – and we love each other enormously. Our house is big enough and we are fairly well supplied. Still, we had a midday explosion of teen emotions and parental frustration just the other day ….. The solution we came to appears later in this missive.
I actually started writing this article during the first week of Colorado’s “social distancing” guidelines, meant to flatten the pandemic curve (two weeks ago now?) Thank goodness we have now taken to calling it “physical distancing” instead. I had spent considerable time that week speaking with clients and colleagues – most of whom have leadership roles and responsibilities for teams that were now scattered to their own homes. I was hearing so much frustration and agitation that I wanted to share it, and share some ideas with you. I will still do that here. First, I want to divulge what happened that stopped the piece from getting out the door way back then! (It’s amazing isn’t it, how long two weeks can seem in this age of daily change isn’t it?)
First, let me introduce myself, I am a single mom in my 50s with three boys, a homeowner, happily in a committed relationship and the founder and President of a leadership development company. I have employees and clients and colleagues and I happen to be recovering still from a knee surgery due to a ski accident earlier this year. I work from home quite a lot, when I’m not traveling and speaking and conducting on or off-site workshops and retreats for clients. But usually, when I’m working, I’m alone in the house. I don’t usually – or I didn’t usually – have twin 11th graders also conducting their busy lives from home all week long too. So, while I was writing about the frustrations and insights I was witnessing from my clients and colleagues – my own frustrations, anxieties and insights were mounting here at home. And I was ignoring them. At first.
I would sincerely like to say that my meditation practice and decades of personal and professional development work toward leadership and strength had me hit the ground in this new reality without a hitch. However, that’s not true.
At times, I found myself scattered, distracted, having a hard time focusing, and experiencing a sort of low-grade anxiety that didn’t square with what I was consciously thinking about our situation. I know that we will get through this. I know that in the long run, globally, we will find a way to deal with this virus. I know that I am lucky to have the relationship I do with my kids, my loved ones and friends. I know that we will all be ok one way or the other – no matter what happens. Yet, still I was anxious.
Finally, I heard Michael Bungay Stanier, a colleague I really respect, say in response to a woman asking him ‘how can I circumvent the anxiety that creeps up on me?’ Stanier’s response was a straight up, “You can’t.” He went on to say, “the only way to the other side is to feel your feelings.”
The moment he said it, I knew that was true for me and that I had been forgetting to give myself the grace of slowing down to do just. I remembered in that moment that we can operate in a sort of balance that allows for grace with ourselves and others while still working hard to meet the new needs of my employees and my children in the midst of all this change. Yet, it is a new set of muscles we must strengthen to keep our balance now.
The people I have had the privilege to connect with over the last few weeks have been seeking their own balance too. They have been, as I had been, putting the burden of the mantle of leadership heavily upon their shoulders. In their imagination, this mantle required them to be the beacon of unflappable strength and positivity while others were fearful and uncertain. And they have a point – It isn’t constructive for leaders to vent their low-grade anxiety – or really big worries – in every conversation. It isn’t constructive to privately focus on those feelings all day long either. However, it is equally not constructive to ignore their presence.
Our feelings always come from the thoughts that fly across the screen of our minds. And we have more thoughts every day than we can track or even consciously generate. They just pop in – and if we let them – they will pop out again too. In this season, as humans facing both big and small changes everywhere we look, we are likely to have more habitual thoughts popping in and out than usual. In fact, they may pop in and then not pop out again so easily! That looks like overwhelm, or numbness, or tiredness, or frenetic activity – or fuzzy headedness. It may show up like irritability or straight forward anger or depression. And then what happens next is the self-flagellation that sounds like, ‘what are you doing? You know better than this!’
When Michael (Stanier) said you can’t circumvent the feelings you just have to go through them. It was like a reset switch had been flipped for me. I remembered the truth in that. And I felt more awake. That midday explosion of teen and mom emotions was the result of not slowing down enough to have an honest conversation about what was happening. The three of us had talked about it, made agreements, and acknowledged the changes and the concerns. But we hadn’t talked about the creeping annoyances – we hadn’t expressed enough of the little things. One of my sons was cranky and irritable that the world had come to a stop – even though he sort of understands it. His brother was irritated with him for being that way. And I just hadn’t simply said what was on my mind. We all opened our hearts and talked – shared the little and the big stuff on our minds – and it was instantly so much better around here. But it won’t stay that way unless we keep the conversation going from time to time.
After we had that conversation, both boys got very productive – doing calculus, taking care of forms and surveys that were due to their teachers and they exercised and ate well. I got very productive too. It’s amazing what a clear head can do for our productivity! Before and after we talked about the our upsets – we also talked about what is going well – what we’re grateful for – and what we are doing to stay connected and moving forward.
I heard a family therapist say about these pandemic times: ‘It’s important to relax your standards some about what the day is going to look like. When all the kids and the parents are home all trying to learn, work, relax, take care of things and themselves every day, it’s not going to be perfect.’ When I shared that idea with some of my clients and friends to get their thoughts – a lot of them erupted with frustration.
Shelby said, “I get that! It makes sense. But I like to be at the top of my game – I don’t want to relax my standards. Even saying that makes me feel sick!”
Shelby’s reaction highlights a misunderstanding. ‘Relaxing the standard’ doesn’t have to mean that the quality of work you or I do is lessened. It might mean that the volume of excellent work done in a single day is a little less – or a lot less – as we navigate stay at home orders – or closed schools. But we can indeed keep our high standards. It might look like this:
Shelby is a senior VP of an IT team who are supporting their company in transitioning to a fully online workforce. They are doing a huge amount of remote tech support which is simply more cumbersome than being able to go to people’s offices and set them all up directly. However, their only option is to talk their in-house clients through the set up and connections remotely. Some are quick and some aren’t. Some of her team are good at that, patient and clear, and some are not. Some of her team respond quickly to her queries and others don’t. Shelby has a standard of attention and responsiveness to which she holds herself and her team. She also has three children who are aged 8-14 at home. Her husband is an ER doctor and not home much these days, as you might imagine. The kids are supposed to be doing school from home and she needs to work.
As she expressed her situation and its frustrations. Her tone grew more and more tense, and more and more ramped up. It was time to slow down. As they say in race car driving, you have to slow down to speed up.
Shelby and I slowed our conversation way down. We had more than one. Shelby explored and aired her thoughts and feelings so she could clear her head. With a clear mind, she got specifically clear on why she has the standards she does – what they are for – and what is most important right now. Then she identified what the missing communications might be and also, where she and her team have really been shining. We talked about what her leadership priorities had to be for this week and next and the next. And we considered strategic and creative ideas about what might be looming next month. Shelby and her team and I met virtually to consider various possible scenarios that she wanted to set plans in place for. And finally She became deeply inspired thinking about ways that she – and anyone on her team who wanted to – could serve their clients above and beyond their usual roles. She even began to think of ways she could help in her neighborhood! I can’t wait to talk to her next time. I imagine she’ll have made some progress on some of her cool ideas. I imagine too, that she’ll be considering a new set of frustrations and challenges that weren’t present last week. And I won’t be surprised if “habitual thinking” has crept in again and we again get to slow it all down and take stock of where she is putting her attention, together.
Toward the end of our conversation last week she asked me for some tips on working from home for herself and for her team. She has kids and has childcare and home schooling to deal with – without another parent around very much. Some of her team have no kids – live alone or with roommates – and they are facing different circumstances. Some of her team are caretaking older parents or are at risk themselves and are being super careful about exposure. Some are disciplined and some are not. So, in PART TWO, you’ll find some tips – aggregated for Shelby and her team – and for all of you.
I am offering select people time to talk about leadership, working from home, parenting in these times, being creative and agile in your own business pivot. If that would serve you, connect with me here: Connect with me here and send me a message. I look forward to hearing from you. Meanwhile, here is PART TWO.
Dr. Lisa E. Hale is the President of Focused Leadership Consulting. FLC develops senior leaders and senior teams. By advancing their capacity for true leadership excellence, companies achieve extraordinary business performance. Focused Leadership Consulting is currently facilitating virtual programs for leadership teams to cement their bond further during this time of physical distancing so that they can be strong, creative and inspiring – and so that their teams and companies thrive.