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Keep It Together When Things Fall Apart

Did you notice anything peculiar with your colleagues lately?

In the sense that they are sort of—well, how can I put it—regressing, not showing up at their level of maturity as constantly as they normally do.

From a developmental point of view, regression is mostly something we notice in smaller children. Here they were, doing so well at going to sleep, eating their porridge or whatever, and now suddenly they are back to behaving in a much more immature version of themselves.

But if you think about it, we all regress from time to time—probably more often that we would like to admit.

Essentially, we have three levels of functionality:

  • Our normal way of being (The way we operate most of the time);
  • A higher level (A peak level something we are trying to learn or aspire to and that we experience from time to time, but not on a consistent basis); and
  • A dysfunctional level (A less than ideal level if we are going to be nice. Some call it below the line. At this level, we are self-centered, judgmental and prone to act out whatever version of the drama triangle is normally our favorite.)

What makes us regress?

We typically regress when we are stressed in the sense that our limits are pushed or our habitual routines are seriously disrupted. Regression is one of the mind’s defense mechanisms. Faced with confusion and uncertainty, it retreats to an emotional comfort zone and essentially wants to self-protect. Some are more prone to this than others.

We now go back to my initial question.

My guess is you are probably experiencing some degree of regression from your colleagues at the moment and they would probably say the same about you.

Post Emergency Apathy

When a crisis hits, most management teams worth their salt rise to the challenge, scrambled to do all the right stuff—often operating a higher level than they normally experience. They forget about their egos, turf wars and all the rest of the BS that can sometimes take up a lot of space.

In that sense, there is nothing like a big crisis to bring out the best in good people.

But then what?

Well, either the crisis is over, the situation fixed and things return to some form of normal or the first threat is over and we now wait for whatever comes next.

Most of us are in that second option at the moment.

We reacted and adjusted to the dramatic changes caused by the pandemic outbreak and now we are in a limbo—waiting and observing. There is no clear path forward and uncertainty is the ordre du jour.

That feels uncomfortable for most of us. As the Danish philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard wrote, “Of all our fears, the fear of the unknown is our greatest.”

We are so used to taking control, finding the right answers and moving forward. Things may be complicated, but we know that there is a right solution. We just need to find it—only just now that is not an option. We have crossed into the territory of complexity, in some instances, bordering on chaos. We are up to our necks in uncertainty.

Right and wrongs have evaporated. We have to sense our way forward blindfolded.

That does not bring out the best in us—and we easily regress.

Here is what you can do instead.

Refocus your way out of the regressive phase.

If you are the team leader, you will need to help your team—and in the process, probably yourself as well—move out of the regression phase and into a more constructive recovery phase.

There are three things you need to focus on:

Recognize the discomfort.

In a previous blog post I wrote about holding the space, practicing, presence, transparency and empathy are keys to doing this well.

Complexity does not make people feel psychologically safe, on the contrary. Psychological safety is the key to us being able to perform at our best. By holding the space, you contribute to creating a space that feels safer. Don’t underestimate the value of that.

Reorganize.

Many organizations are facing dramatic revenue drops. That means they will need to readjust their teams to match the new reality.

This is an opportunity to think differently. With fewer people, how can we maintain a great customer experience? Maybe now, it is the time to switch from focusing on resource optimization and start thinking flow focus. Take some inspiration from the famous 1960’s Dutch football team. Your customers will love it.

By reorganizing, we also create a sense of a new beginning, which is explained further in the next section.

Reorient.

It is absolutely easy to get caught up in a thought pattern that frames the current situation as the end of something—that is not helpful. Nobody likes glum endings.

Instead, we need to re-frame the current reality and rally the team to think of this as a new beginning. What are we going to do differently now that all the cards are on the table?

Reshuffle the team. Energize everyone by assigning new roles. Break down some of the old silos that have annoyed you for years—fits well with flow-focused customer experiences.

This is a window of opportunity. Open it wide and get some fresh ideas in.

Just one final thought: Cut your boss some slack.

If you are a team member, have some empathy for your team leader. Allow some space for them to regress as well.

Sometimes, we expect our boss to be superhuman, but even the best of super humans fall in to the trap and regress from time to time, so be kind and be big enough to hold the space for them, too. Be there with presence, transparency and empathy. It is not easy for them either.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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