This past year, we’ve proved beyond all doubt that we can work in tough situations and adapt to changes rapidly.
We switched teams to work-from-home with less than a week’s notice. We developed new communications methods, new working routines, and new ways to get things done.
Looking at how the majority of companies and leaders handled the past year, there’s no doubt that we have the competence to handle our responsibilities and lead in a visionary way.
However, while we have responded to this unprecedented challenge in some remarkably positive ways, we are working longer hours than the already-long days we put in before the pandemic and overall, we’re less productive with higher rates of stress, anxiety, and burnout.
We have the competence. The question is – do we have the capacity?
Capacity is the physical, emotional, and mental bandwidth required to function at your best. If you’re exhausted and stressed to the max, are you able to be your best when the highest level of competency is required? Probably not.
Consider how your capacity is impacted by some of these daily choices:
- When you miss sleep, your brain processing is equivalent to a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent (legally under the influence in much of the world).
- Chronic stress can actually rewire your brain, reducing executive function and shifting decision-making into more primitive, survival-focused portions of the brain.
- Eating processed food can deteriorate your brain function. A high-sugar, high-fat diet can suppress the production of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and impede memory function, learning, and flexibility.
Physical choices affect you and the way you function as a leader.
Good ones – like resting well, exercising, and being mindful – expand your capacity to communicate responsively, think strategically, and lead confidently. Less optimal ones reduce your capability to demonstrate the competence you’ve already acquired.
Think of it in terms of the Performance Equation:
Capacity + Competency = Sustainable Performance
You can work for a while under physical, emotional, and mental stress and strain. You’ve done it this past year and you’ve expected it of your team members.
We’ve seen employees handle a grueling tax season, launch company-wide initiatives, and develop new technology from their home computers. We’ve watched parents conduct video calls with poise even while their children pop into the background. We’ve seen workers putting in three extra hours a night – three hours they’re taking away from sleep, family life, and self-care – to make sure they’re taking care of business.
We did it because it had to be done…but we can’t keep doing it forever. As we go back into the office, how do we make a change?
If our people return to the office drained and burned out from this past year, then we pile more work on them, what will happen? Even before COVID, 70 percent of American workers reported that their companies had unrealistic work expectations and 64 percent said their supervisors wouldn’t back them up if times got tough.
Establishing New Team Norms that Bolster the Performance Equation
As leaders, we tend to praise competencies and undervalue capacity. We expect our team members to do more, take on more stress, and get things done faster than ever before.
We praise people for working 80-hour weeks, pulling all-nighters, or answering messages even on vacation.
The “do whatever it takes” approach usually starts as a well-meant inspiration. Unless we’re mindful as managers, though, this approach can become actively harmful, sapping our team’s energy and enthusiasm and becoming a contributor to the greatest level of burnout, anxiety, and overwhelm ever experienced in the modern work era.
How do we combat it? As a leader, your team looks to you for a model of organizational/departmental climate and culture. You set the standard for what’s expected. Assess yourself:
- Are you sending emails late at night, causing your team members to scramble or to feel compelled to respond?
- Are you using your vacation days? Taking your lunch breaks? Finding time for physical activity during the day?
- Are you setting reasonable timelines for work and defining appropriate expectations with other departments or with clients?
- Are you acting with self-awareness, understanding how your choices may appear to the people around you?
- Are you leading with empathy, recognizing and making space for the parts of your employees’ lives that may be different from your own (child or elder care responsibilities, financial challenges, cultural differences)?
As you begin bringing people back to work, now is the time to examine your culture and make changes. In a way, you’re starting with a clean slate and an opportunity to establish new norms.
You can start by:
- Having conversations. Ask your employees about their experiences at home: what challenged them, what frustrated them, and what exhausted them. What’s creating the most strain as they contemplate being back in the office? These conversations should be driven by an honest desire to create a workplace/team focus on renewal and increasing capacity.
- Establishing new norms. Bring the feedback from your team members into a group setting. Did your team members offer some persistent themes – a desire for fewer meetings or greater schedule flexibility? Stress over micromanagement or unclear expectations? Define how these issues are creating an impact on your team and create new norms/expectations for the group.
- Keep each other accountable while also emphasizing flexibility. Flexibility should not be treated as a perk but as a necessary business discipline. We’re expecting people to move back from the relative freedom of work-from-home into the confines of the traditional office workday. Everything may take time to re-settle. Watch for people falling back into old routines or bad habits and find ways to patiently redirect their efforts.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to inspire and equip your people to do their best (competence), while at the same time putting boundaries in place to ensure they can be their best (capacity). Allow them to replenish their capacity so they want and are able to do the best for you and for the organization.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com where Andrew Deutscher is an expert contributor.