Redirect the Energy
Good Leaders Help People Through Tough Times, Wakeman Says
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our daily lives and slowed down the economy. More than 400,000 people have died in the U.S. alone and millions more have been infected.
“These are tough times, but these are our times,” said Cy Wakeman, drama researcher, global thought leader and author, during a recent virtual Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series talk.
Wakeman observed how interactions changed when more people started teleworking regularly and virtual meetings became the only way to gather. At first, people asked each other how they were doing and offered help to each other. Over time, interactions became more negative. They began complaining or wishing for a different future as the going got tough.
She advised leaders to direct “energy away from why we can’t or shouldn’t have to” to “what if we could and how do we do that.”
Many people aren’t aware of how their minds work and, as a result, are played by their ego, she explained. To handle stress, the ego oversimplifies things. It prefers certainty over accuracy. People ruminate on their feelings and turn them into grievances.
When she begins virtual meetings, Wakeman asks participants “what are you feeling?” That question “anchors people in a human connection and opens up hearts and minds and innovation.” She wants to show them that there’s space for all kinds of feelings, whether that’s excitement or devastation.
“I want to remind people that many things are true right now,” she said. “We need both-and thinking.”
Pain, or what people temporarily feel when they suffer a loss, is inevitable, she noted. Pain tends to go away after a short time. Suffering, or “what comes from the story you add to your pain,” does not. People suffer because they apply outdated approaches to new realities and resist change.
Leaders must understand the theory of post-traumatic growth, which posits that people can see positive change following a stressful event in life. Resilient people can envision multiple hopeful futures. She said it’s possible to acknowledge profound loss and also grow from the experience.
At the appropriate time, leaders must provide hope by stepping in and encouraging others to think about various optimistic possibilities.
“Your job as a leader is not to focus on stress futures, but brilliant futures,” Wakeman explained. “We can be the connectors and bridge.”
Leaders cannot ignore reality, but they can focus discussions around questions such as “how can we?” she suggested. “That’s just where innovation blossoms.” This approach helps groups identify constraints and then figure out how to work within them.
During times of crisis, Wakeman advised, leaders must not show fear, but check in on their employees and connect with them as human beings. “The whole message is, ‘We got you; we’ll figure this out.’”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Wakeman reached out individually to every one of her employees and learned how to help them. She cautioned, however, that effective leaders can’t keep doing favors because it doesn’t foster resiliency. Instead, devise a plan to help workers become self-sufficient and grow. Help people connect with others, she said.
“You can’t let people get stuck here, but we will go back as even more crazy stuff happens,” Wakeman explained.
Finally, she advised people to radically simplify their life during tough times by getting rid of anything that isn’t vital work, so they can devote time to figuring out what’s most essential. Nothing gets added back without questioning why and finding a way to sustain it for the long haul.
“Our circumstances aren’t the reasons we can’t succeed,” Wakeman said. “They are simply the reality in which we must succeed.”
Wakeman’s talk was the first installment of the FY2021 DDM Seminar Series. To view the full schedule, visit http://ddmseries.od.nih.gov/.