The Risk and Reward of Your Employee Spend

Would you ever buy a thoroughbred and expect no return on your investment? What would be the logic of spending time looking for the best breed, with the best breeding lines, the best muscle tone, and the best character and then putting it in a field where it does not have place to run? Surely at the cost of buying the most capable animal you can find there is a sense that this is a resource that can be utilized to make money?

In a recent conversation with Junita van der Colff, who specializes in Risk Management, she mentioned that risk is only one side of the coin – the flip side is opportunity. Hence the analogy of the horse. Why take on the risk of owning the animal if you don’t make use of the opportunities created by the ownership.

The Risk

This got me thinking that one of the biggest risks companies are facing now is their employee spend. Let us first get a good perspective on what the cost is of employing staff. Often times we think of it as just another salary bill at the end of the month, but actually it includes the following: 

  1. Recruiting expenses
  2. Monthly salary, bonuses, incentives
  3. Office space allocation
  4. Employee administration costs such as Finance and HR
  5. Tech and equipment costs
  6. Leave
  7. Training and development
  8. Meeting times (unless billed to a client) and Manager inputs.

Generally, depending on business size and industry, it is accepted that up to 30% of a company’s revenue goes straight into employee salaries. If that covers point two above, it still leaves seven other areas of business where money and time are being spent on employees which is unaccounted for.

A lot of businesses, especially with the effects of COVID-19 and Lockdown, are having to take a long hard look at their employee spend as one of their biggest risk factors. At the same time they are dependent on their employees to provide the services and products they sell. It is an enormous Catch 22.

The Reward

While retrenchments are the order of the day, I believe that businesses are missing an important step here. Instead of getting rid of people, they should do more with the employees available to mitigate this risk.

It is interesting that employers often prefer a plug and play model of management. They want to hire the best people, match them to a job profile and then they want them to “get on with it”. This approach reduces real connection between the manager and the employee. It does not take into account the employee’s unique skills, abilities and strengths, and in essence relegates the employee to a machine.

I believe that when we connect with team members we can unlock more potential and by seeing and getting to know them as individuals we learn what motivates and inspires them. This process is good for business as more value is gained from the same individual, while simultaneously rewarding the individual for what they are good at. This creates a win-win loop of positivity and engagement from the employee, as managers provide them with interesting challenges relevant to them as employees. This then solves the problems the manager is coming across and removing stress from their environment.

The “How”:

  • Constantly review conventional norms.
    Often employees are under-utillized because they aren’t allowed to act outside of their job profile.
  • Be open to ideas from team members.
    I have seen too many businesses hire the best and most talented people just to force them into the mould of “that’s how we do things here”.
  • When there is a problem to be solved ask around.
    Sometimes people with the least knowledge of a problem have the best solutions because they can provide a fresh perspective.
  • Acknowledge all contributions.
    Employees are being asked for their inputs, they are not sitting an exam. There is no such thing as failure in thoughts. The moment people’s contribution in solution crafting is judged harshly you remove their future ability to speak up.

In essence, show trust and create a safe environment for brainstorming. Then see how you can further leverage team members to bring the plan to action. This way you will get a great return on your employee spend. Both from a financial but also a psychological level. This allows you to do more with less.

This week my Coffee Companion on @Performance Café is Junita van der Colff, MD of Protean Business Solutions and host of the Risk Revue podcast. We talk about Risk Management and how to be properly pro-active as well as constructively reactive, to ensure that employee performance is at minimum risk during challenging times.

Achieving the Impossible in 2020

The return of Spring in South Africa during September brings about a sense of renewal and optimism. Sun-loving South Africans pack away winter clothes and spend long days enjoying the great weather the country has to offer. By October the focus moves to the final weeks of the year. A sense of exhaustion sets in with days being counted until the start of the Summer holidays. This seems to be the time when innovation and creativity take a back seat, and it is easier to manage the structured and routine tasks that keeps everything afloat.

This year more than most, it appears that this exhaustion, which has been made worse by COVID and the Lockdown, is much more palpable. The difference is that this exhaustion arrived earlier than expected. By June, with COVID reaching its peak, people already wished away the year.

So how do we approach the last few weeks of 2020, when energy is at an all-time low?

1. Mindset Shift

Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it is done”. Many factors impact persistence and dedication, but most of all it is a matter of mindset. Believing nothing can be achieved or that no effort is valuable at this time of the year is a sure-fire way of ensuring nothing happens. It is also a way of sucking energy from any initiative. Right now is the time to plan how to exceed your goals, not shy away from them.

Tip: Identify the top three goals that have not been achieved this year and re-look how you can reach them given the current situation. They need not look exactly the same, and the approach may be different. Don’t hang onto the irrelevant. If the situation has changed, change the plan.

2. Plan and Measure.

With so much to do, in such a short time, it is crucial to have a finger on the pulse. Knowing when a task is lagging, or something is about to fail is vital. There is no “later” to deal with issues that arise. If you depend on a team, it is also demotivating for them to feel their efforts are at risk because of a breakdown somewhere else in the system.

Tip: make detailed plans and link them to short timelines. Then review and measure these almost daily.

3. Keep communication lines open.

Legacy thinking in businesses dictates that (a) spending time with employees is a waste of time and (b) that employees are wind-up toys that need no guidance and support to achieve their goals. Both of these assumptions are incorrect and detrimental to good leadership practice.

Tip: Have frequent shorter meetings with team members both on an individual and team basis to help resolve issues they cannot clear themselves. Use these to listen and support and avoid telling them what to do. Empower the team to help and support each other as well. There may be a valuable transfer of skills that can take place as well as an improvement in team dynamics.

4. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate

It is easy to get fixated on a goal, but as the saying goes nothing succeeds like success. Celebrate the small wins to provide continuous energy for the work needed to achieve the final destination.

Tip: Break goals down into milestones and celebrate the success of each of these. This can be done by sending a congratulatory mail or mentioning the achievement in a meeting.

These steps could start turning the tide on a challenging year and help set you up for a much improved 2021. If you don’t quite achieve the impossible by the end of 2020, you may get there in 2021.

This brings to mind David Houle who is my Coffee Companion on Performance Cafe this Friday. David is a well-known futurist who has through his life had a natural tendency to achieve the out-of-the-ordinary. Listen to the full discussion to hear what he has to say about performance in uncertain times.

Two ears one mouth

There is a quote attributed to Epictetus, which states “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This quote came to mind when I was chatting with Paul Ruinaard about his experiences with the Enneagram and how he and his sales team use it to ensure that they become more attuned to clients’ needs and perspectives. Their use of the Enneagram helps them to better shape solutions to fit client needs.

The reason I found this so interesting is that in many western societies, sales is the domain of fast-talking individuals who focus their personal development more around skills of assertiveness and persuasion than of on client-centricity. This is often true in business where telling is a preferred method of management.

Contrast that to our society where digital technology is creating an environment where consumers are dictating what they want, how they want it, where they want it, and even in some cases, how much they are willing to pay for it. This trend leads me to beg the question, would this work when managing employees? Would we get more done if we stopped allocating tasks and instead provided team members with required outcomes and listened to their solutions? This lets them decide the tasks that are needed to achieve the results.

My feeling would be that it would be more effective. There are a few reasons for this:

1. Despite years in business, managers often lose touch with the day-to-day tasks of team members. This could lead to managers who are unaware of the latest and newest technologies and techniques available to teams. They not only impose their preferences on the team but also negatively impact the development of the team members.

2. Autonomy is one of the major contributors to work satisfaction and improved engagement. Team members have a higher level of responsibility in their work and feel more pride in the outcome if they can determine the approach to take.

3. Managers easily complain about team members who need excessive guidance to get work completed. This neediness could be caused by managers not trusting team members and not allowing them to determine their approach. It breeds a culture of dependence on the manager instead of letting the team members deliver outcomes independently.

It would appear therefore that deciding outcomes, discussing those with team members, finding out how they would shape the solution and provide results within the allotted time is a good a way to provide them with the clarity that they need while leaving the results up to them. It also is a great way to measure the problem-solving capabilities of team members while encouraging their development beyond the managers experience.

A cautionary point though is to never confuse autonomy for team members with abdication as a manager. Although team members get to decide the steps to results, the manager is still required to check that they are on track and that there are no obstacles that they cannot overcome. This is specifically true for more inexperienced teams or team members who may need a little more guidance initially until they have adjusted to the expectations placed on them. Maybe I could edit Epictetus’ quote by adding that there should be two ears, one mouth and two supportive and trusting hands.

Paul Ruinaard (https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulruinaard/) if our Performance Café, Coffee Companion for this week. Look out for the interview on our YouTube channel, LinkedIn or Facebook page.

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Paul Ruinaard (https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulruinaard/) if our Performance Café, Coffee Companion for this week. Look out for the interview on our YouTube channel, LinkedIn or Facebook page.

Managing like a (Human) Boss

This week @Herman Singh, CEO and Founder of Future Advisory, is my Coffee Companion for my vlog @Performance Café. Herman published his book Di-Volution earlier this year which looks at the Digital Revolution, where we are at and where we will be going.

During the recording session, one of the questions we covered was whether machines are about to take over the world – his answer was not yet. He explained that most computers only work from a deterministic point. This is similar to doing if/then statements in Excel. For example, if a self-driving car approaches a traffic light it is simple enough to see what the color of the light is and respond accordingly. If the light is red it will stop. That means that they are not yet equipped to deal with humans, who do can deal with any number of variations within seconds. To continue the example, when the self-driving vehicle sees an amber light it is likely to slow down in preparation to stop. By comparison a human driver may time the changing of the light to see if they can clear the intersection before the light changes to red. Here the human is calculating the probability. This is something that “the machines” cannot do yet.

The other interesting titbit from the interview was that by 2030 the ability to connect with humans or using interpersonal skills will be a significant advantage. These are often referred to as soft skills when actually they are the most difficult. Ask any manager who has had to mediate conflict between two employees whether it was easy and they will probably agree that soft skills is a misnomer. I would like to replace it with the term interpersonal adaptive mastery. Why? Because we each create our own realities based on our own characteristics, skills, strengths, beliefs, values, abilities, and so on. Our reality is not the cookie cutter replication that our schooling systems seem to try and create and larger corporates also tend to maintain.

To go back to our example of the manager mediating between employees. Our traditional view would be that there are three individuals taking part in the process and while that is correct, the reality is that the following aspects may not be shared by all three individuals: 

  1. They may not all be of the same gender.
  2. They may not be of the same culture.
  3. They may not have grown up in the same area.
  4. They may not have studied at the same schools.
  5. They may not have the same level of tertiary education.
  6. They may not have the same relationship status.
  7. They may not have the same number of dependents.  
  8. They may not travel to work in the same way.
  9. They may not have grown up speaking the same language.
  10. They may not have the same belief systems.

The list carries on….

Given that these individuals are exactly that – individual – and given that we acknowledge that humans can respond probabilistically. It is important to understand that all management, whether in a small business or a large corporation is in essence dealing with complexity and that the best way to manage humans is by taking their differences into account instead of trying to be too deterministic.

Another aspect to take into mind is sentience. Computers are not self-aware, therefore they are impervious of their effect on others. Through our self-awareness as humans we are able to understand that we bring our own dynamic into interactions. Therefore the manager who is mediating understands that he or she is contributing to the discussion as well and therefore has to be very wary of influencing instead of mediating.

In conclusion to lead like a human boss you should:

  1. Treat team members as individuals and take into account their unique contributions.
  2. Understand that differences create opportunity and new perspectives. This is particularly important for innovation and creativity.
  3. Understand that every person in an interaction contributes to the dynamic.
  4. Embrace the complexity and don’t expect interpersonal adaptive skills to be automatic and perfect. They grow the more they are used.

I hope to see you at our Coffee Companions chat on Friday as we take a deeper dive into our conversation on the Digital Revolution and Man’s search for meaning.

The People-impact Balance Sheet

There is currently a lot of focus from businesses looking at their finances and working out how the rest of the year will unfold. Do they have enough cashflow to carry them to 2021, where hopefully they will be able to have a better year? If they don’t, how do they manage their rapidly reducing cashflow to last to the end of the year? And of course, what can they do with the rest of the year to set them up for a better 2021. It is all balance sheets and income statements.

An interesting perspective to this for me is that while everyone is focused on running the numbers, they overlook the largest contributor to both success or failure in their organization, and that is their team members. I love doing the following exercise at the start of workshops. I ask participants (normally business owners) to complete the following exercise:

  • What are your top three business problems?
 
 
 
  • What is your business’s annual revenue?
 
  • What percentage of the annual revenue depends on your team members?
 
  • What impact can your team members have, both positively and negatively, on the three problems above?
 
 
 
  • What does your lack of attention to team members cost you?
 
 
 

As with any income statement there are two ways to approach understanding our people-impact. The first is the revenue section. Here, instead of asking how much revenue we have brought in, we should be asking how much engagement we have extracted from our team members.  How do we do this?

  • We know that training and development is a big motivator for team members.
  • Creating a welcoming and collaborative working environment has a positive effect on productivity.
  • Allowing for role-appropriate autonomy and some self-determination in completing tasks go a long way to motivation teams.

This form of engagement is good for team members as it increases productivity, performance and leverages intrinsic motivation. It is also good for business as it increases revenue and profits while reducing management overheads.

The second part of our people impact balance sheet is that of expenses. And this speaks to where we are spending our energy as leaders. Are we spending it on:

  1. Micromanaging teams and reducing their motivation to excel?
  2. Fighting fires and being reactive?
  3. Doing the work that team members are meant to do “so that it gets done right the first time”?
  4. Avoiding difficult discussions … again.
  5. Doing routine work that can be delegated or automated?
  6. Using remote work as an excuse for a lack of connection with team members.

If the expenses part of our people-impact balance sheet is not in the form of investments that are meant to increase our revenues section then we are failing the business, the team members and ourselves. We all know what the cost is of wasteful expenditure on a regular balance sheet.

As we head into roughly the three last months of 2020, I would like to ask you to evaluate your people-impact balance sheet and see where you can improve your return on investment by using your leadership skills.

Roping Options In.

Last week I wrote about making the best of the challenges that 2020 has brought across our paths and reiterated the well-known saying “There is no growth in your comfort zone”. People responded that as there is so much pain and suffering right now that it is difficult to know where to start looking for the positives. Predictably this is to be expected as most people feel worn down by the rigours of Lockdown and the unfortunate run of negative news that accompanies it.

This week I prepared a social media post for Facebook. In this post I was speaking of individual versus team strengths. The challenge was for everyone to try and understand each other’s strengths as a way to understand their perspective. I used the metaphor of a rope and showed that each person’s rope is different. A rope can either provide security or it can be constricting. So, in effect the same tool can have two very different uses.

I feel the same about challenging situations. While we can say that, in general, the challenge itself is uncomfortable the growth is what is important. Does the growth give you knowledge and wisdom which provides security and confidence or does it confine you and make you feel restricted? Often we are so focused on the discomfort of the change process that we underestimate the value of the final product of the change journey.

During the lockdown I wrote a blog, Managing the COVID-19 Blues, containing a tool to evaluate and triage the challenges being faced during lockdown. This tool is as useful now to find the positives and opportunities. 

Step 1:

Set up a table containing a few rows. Plot all the areas of your life that are important to you. To make this exercise easier you can use the basic outline of a life wheel which may include areas such as work, personal development, money, home, health, friends, community, spirituality, recreation and so on.

Areas  
Work  
Personal Development  
Money  
Home  

Step 2:

Write down all the perceived opportunities in each of these areas.

AreasOpportunitiesTiming
WorkIn having to rethink my business I have found a new services I can add to replace less viable services. 
Personal DevelopmentSome of the services I want to add to my business take more research and thought. This will mean I can develop my own skillset to incorporate these.  
MoneyMoney has been tight so I have had to rethink my spending and I can use this to better manage my money (and my businesses) going forward. 
HomeI have made deeper connections with friends and family over this period. We have a solid relationship and we will support each other during these times. 

Step 3:

If you can, it is also a good idea to write down if you have a concept of the time when this might happen.

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkIn having to rethink my business I have found a new services I can add to replace less viable services.Current as this is happening now.
Personal DevelopmentSome of the services I want to add to my business take more research and thought. This will mean I can develop my own skillset to incorporate these. This may take 6 months or more.
MoneyMoney has been tight so I have had to rethink my spending and I can use this to better manage my money (and my businesses) going forward.It could take up to a year to use these learnings and the new services to recoup some of the lost income.   
HomeI have made deeper connections with friends and family over this period. We have a solid relationship and we will support each other during these times.This is current and I will need to take everybody’s plans into account as we get back on our feet.

Step 4:

Next categorize each entry as follows: Green (immediate), yellow (medium term) and red (longer term).

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkIn having to rethink my business I have found a new services I can add to replace less viable services.Current as this is happening now.
Personal DevelopmentSome of the services I want to add to my business take more research and thought. This will mean I can develop my own skillset to incorporate these. This may take 6 months or more.
MoneyMoney has been tight so I have had to rethink my spending and I can use this to better manage my money (and my businesses) going forward.It could take up to a year to use these learnings and the new services to recoup some of the lost income.   
HomeI have made deeper connections with friends and family over this period. We have a solid relationship and we will support each other during these times.This is current and I will need to take everybody’s plans into account as we get back on our feet.

Step 5:

I hope that this tool helps by giving you information that will make you feel secure and unrestricted.  With the ability to plan and prioritise the actions that will get you quick wins, as well as adequately plan for the longer-term goals. It is important to keep in mind all the areas in your lives that you need to pay attention too.

To end off I would like to leave you with a final thought on the rope I mentioned earlier. Rope is only as strong as it is comprised of a lot of thinner ropes that are wound together to create a larger, and stronger, rope. In the same way we can be stronger by being part of a support group, where we are not only getting but giving support as well. Together is truly better.  

If such support is not available from your immediate environment then feel free to reach out to someone in the professional helping services to be your support during this time, or reach out to be a support to someone else.

COVID BLUES – Values in Action

As we near the end of the lockdown in South Africa I wanted to leave you with a final article on dealing with the pressures of lockdown. Recovery will no doubt take a while for most and I wanted to share with you a piece on values as, sometimes counterintuitively, they can be a source of procrastination. We associate values with our true north, our guiding principles. They are something to be proud of and are a large part of who we are. And that is exactly the point. If we set targets or goals that do not align with our values then we are unlikely to work towards them.

A fairly frequent example is someone who goes through a health scare and despite the doctor’s advice does not make the necessary lifestyle changes. This does not seem rational looking from the outside in, however, it is important to understand that there is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards come from the outside and while they can work they are short-lived. Intrinsic rewards come from our internal processes, such as values, and last longer. To follow the example above, if the individual is overeating it would be obvious that the individual needs to control their weight and should diet and exercise. However, if that person was raised in poverty where they did not know where the next meal would come from, they may place a high value on having food around, or eating whenever they have access to food. That is a value-driven behaviour and the value, and the cause of it, needs to be addressed to adjust to a new value.

While most people feel they “have values” not very many people have a good idea of what they are, and what their effect is in their lives and therefore cannot plan with them in mind. The easiest way to start identifying your values is to check your “should haves”, “would haves” and “could haves”. These words indicate a lack of action even though the apparent rational course of action would have been to do as you intended. The reason is that what you intended to do did not align with your values and it is important to investigate these. For example if you know there is a room in your house that needs to be cleared out and cleaned out but you never get around to it. You can ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What about dealing with this challenging activity do you find demotivating?
    What is it about the activity that presents so much pressure?
    How will this activity make you feel while you are doing it?

  2. What pleasant activity would you rather be doing?
    Is this activity something that you would repeatedly be doing instead?
    Do you have something new you would rather be focussing on?
    How does this activity feed you?

Reflecting on these questions will show you what you consider to be important in life. The ideal solution is to find a way that you can reframe your values to include the activity. So in the example of the room, the work may be boring and overwhelming and therefore not align with your need for diverse and interesting activities. However, if you have a value on family and you know the family needs the extra space you may be able to find the intrinsic motivation to clear the room.

While aligning goals to our values sets us up for success, we may not always be able to do so. In those cases, here are some alternatives to try:

  1. Is there a way that you can use other mechanisms to get the challenging activity done?
  2. Can the assistance of a friend make the challenging task easier?
  3. Can you outsource the task to someone else (remember self-care)?
  4. Is there a way that you can break up the activity over a couple of sessions so that you conquer it bit-by-bit?
  5. Is there any subpart of the activity that you will find rewarding and can use as motivation to keep going?

Understanding our values and the way they affect our thoughts, decisions and actions are very important in understanding our levels of motivation. I hope these pointers help get you closer to achieving your goals to recover from the impact of the lockdown.

Managing the COVID Blues – Don’t think outside the box

I am hoping that the blogs I have posted over the past few weeks have helped you gain a better understanding of the impact of the COVID lockdown on you, your emotions and the way you may be viewing the challenges you are facing. The old maxim states that if you fail to plan you plan to fail and so I think it is time to use all the reflection from the past few weeks and turn them into an action plan.

In order to do this, it is time to start solving problems. However, before we get there I want to talk about innovation and creativity. As is the case with the concept of leadership people often identify as lacking in innovation and lacking on creativity. I believe that it is part of our schooling system which not only assigned labels as “analytical” or “creative” but also made value judgements about it, such as that analytical is the same as clever and creative is not.  We need to get into a growth mindset about these labels we have. What does creative and innovative really mean? Is a maths genius solving a difficult equation any less creative than an artist creating a masterpiece? Is a musician creating a harmony any less analytical than an engineer ensuring that enough components of specific types are built into a piece of machinery? It is time to accept that we can all be innovative and creative, just in our own way, with our own talents.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that our problems cannot be solved with the thinking that created them. So in order to solve the problems we are having at this incredibly difficult time, we need to think differently. The term thinking outside the box is not relevant anymore, we need to throw away the box and think as if it never existed. Now more than ever it is important to be innovative and not fear trying new things. It is also a good idea to bounce ideas off of others, and even have them brainstorm with you to harness their unique creativity and ability to innovate.

Understanding this it is time to put together an action plan for a way forward that works for you. Before we get there though I want to provide you with the tool, the table below, for discerning which one of your potential solutions will be the most appropriate to go forward on. For each problem (called the problem statement below) use your creativity to find three solutions (preferably very divergent from each other) to solve the problem. Then complete the columns below. By doing this for each problem you should be able to find the best approach available to you at this point.

Problem statement:  
Potential Solution OptionsWhat do I need to get this done?Who do I need to get this done?By when do I need to get this done?How long will it take to get this done?What are the long term implications to this option?
Solution A       
Solution B       
Solution C       

When looking specifically at the “Who do I need to get this done?” column there are a few important aspects to take into consideration.

·       It is very seductive, especially when facing challenges, to try and do everything by oneself. It is important to note though that no one has the time, talents or energy to do everything themselves. This is even more so in this time where we are facing so many challenges we and motivation is at an all-time low.

·       For some individuals interaction with others is a major motivator and therefore having someone helping actually energizes and motivates them. Again, as we face some stringent lockdown measures that are causing isolation this may be an even bigger factor than would normally be the case.

·       During a crisis, especially when resources are limited, it is often the case that saving money becomes a key factor, however, we do not calculate what it costs to do things ourselves. As an example, amongst my coaching clients, the tendency has been for highly experienced and technically specialised individuals to take on their own admin work in order to save money. The irony is that it takes them longer to do than it would an experienced PA and removes some of their focus off of their core business. If I ask them to calculate the costs it is amazing to see how much of their billable time gets sucked into admin. While I use the example of admin, mentors, coaches, outsourced financial management, outsourced HR and the likes are all places where experts can help us so we can focus on getting our own work done.

·       Also, remember what I said about having someone to bounce ideas off of, or who can brainstorm with you?

My hope is that in applying this thinking to each of the major dangers facing you, which are real and imminent, that you will be able to find a way forward that will help you keep focussed through the overwhelm. Good luck! I hope that by my next blog you will be progressing in your solutions.

COVID-19 – Why we Feel so Bad

Over the past couple of weeks I have experienced the same scenario over and over again with a variety of people. People reach out feeling overwhelmed, concerned, afraid, confused and helpless. The person just isn’t sure why they feel that way. The cause is society’s need to compel everyone to stay positive even in these times.

Even more serious are those individuals who, during these discussions report feeling guilty because they cannot cope with the effects of lockdown on their personal and work lives. Again there is so little self-care in this, it is sad that we live in a world where we are David facing Goliath and it is expected that we will take this in our stride without a hitch.

Then there is the prevalence of Covid boredom. People are tired of masks and sanitizers and a lack of good company and good coffee. They are not really bored, in fact they may be feeling the pressure more than ever, but as with positivity and guilt this is a form of denial and denial is often one of the first phases of grieving. And yes, we are grieving, but we either don’t know it, or we don’t want to show it.

The link between grief and the COVID crisis

Before I get into theory let’s take a look at grief. It is a construct that we so often fob off because what we are going through is “not that bad” especially when “no one has died”. Grief however is prevalent wherever there is a sense of loss. So being retrenched, losing a home, getting divorced (or ending a long standing relationship), big changes in physical or mental abilities, and the like all can bring on grief. Let’s take a look at what exactly what we are grieving right now.

As always I want to dust off Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For those of you who don’t know Maslow’s theory, here is the CliffsNotes version. Maslow identified five stages of human motivation, and they need to filled in a linear progression, from the bottom of the diagram to the top, to best meet human needs.

The first two levels, at the bottom, are inward looking and refer to physiological needs and safety needs. At level 3 and 4 Maslow holds that humans have a need to belong and to be appreciated for their contribution. At level 5 humans start to self-actualize and their contributions become more significant as they focus on fulfilling their potential.

If we take a look at the impact of the Covid-19 and the lockdown on the average family we see the following:

  • Physiological needs
    People losing their jobs, their, homes and their ability to sustain the most basic of needs.
  • Safety needs
    Security is being lost as people are losing jobs, being forced to take unpaid leave, having salaries reduced. Along with this is the constant fear of themselves or a loved one getting ill and having the resources to care for them, get them hospitalised when healthcare resources are scarce.
  • Love and Belonging
    The most benign threat here is our inability to spend time with loved ones, which is in itself causing mental health issues. At worst the threat ranges from a loved one having to die in isolation to not being able to honour cultural and religious practices for fear of infection. Humans are social beings and without serotonin and oxytocin we are at risk of developing mental health concerns due to a lack of input from others.
  • Esteem
    There is no part of this facet of motivation that is not challenged. For those that are infected are stigmatised and ostracized from their communities.  For their families there is the guilt of not “doing enough”, even when freedom was sacrificed for the hope of avoiding infection. 
  • Self-actualization
    With so much uncertainty it is challenging to focus on self-improvement and further eats into self-confidence.

In short, what most of humanity is experiencing is an attack on every level of human need and in many cases multiple people in the same group, household or family are under attack at a variety of levels at the same time. This is why there is so much tension within relationships right now, and due to social distancing and isolation we have no escape physically from these tensions.

So has this article contributed to the fear-mongering and the sense of helplessness? I certainly hope not. I hope that I have shown you why you feel the way you do right now. That the way you feel is not due to your own shortcomings, and that there is a very real external threat that is putting unreasonable pressure on you. I hope this awareness helps you feel less helpless, guilty and inadequate. In my next post I will look at ways to deal with the emotions in a constructive way and use them to build solutions, albeit it short term

Managing the COVID-19 blues

Last week I wrote about the loss and the grief that we suffer because of the COVID-19 lockdown and how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by all of these emotions while we underestimate exactly the impact this is having on us. The point of the article was to bring home that we underestimate the reach of the lockdown because we don’t understand all the areas of our lives that it impacts and because of the obsession with staying positive.

A friend of mine who was diagnosed with more than one life threatening medical condition in a short space of time taught me a lot about how to grieve when you not grieving the loss of a physical life but of a future and are combating a loss of “who I am” or “who I was”. One day he showed me a cartoon strip of Charlie Brown and Snoopy sitting on a dock and Charlie Brown says to Snoopy “Someday we will all die, Snoopy!”. Snoopy very wisely responds “True but on all the other days we will not”. This example explains how to carry on when things look dark, when we feel that there is an imminent danger. It is in remembering that there is a gap between imminent and current.

Where does this focus on the negative come from? As humans we have a built-in bias towards negativity, this is largely because of a part of our limbic brain called the amygdala, which helps protect us by finding and focusing on danger so we can take the necessary action. Imagine a caveman walking through a jungle and not seeing a snake hanging from a tree he will walk under – this could be a potentially fatal mistake. The caveman’s amygdala acts like a sensor that is constantly scanning the environment for any small sign of danger so that an appropriate response can be formulated. Back to our own amygdalas and, unfortunately, when we have so much danger around us as we have now and it all seems imminent, they flood us with information. So much, in fact that instead of being able to isolate and plan around this danger we are overwhelmed and our flight, fight or freeze response calls on us to freeze because there is not place to run for safety and there is no ideal way of fighting this because the danger is too pervasive.

The answer however is not to ignore our feelings, which are trying to signal all the danger around us. We should identify what we working with – what is the danger and where is it coming from. Once we know this then we can start taking care of ourselves moving through the perceived dangers and start making plans.

A useful tool is to start by triaging the dangers, using the following guide.

Step 1:

Set up a table containing a few rows. Plot all the areas of your life that are important to you. To make this exercise easier you can use the basic outline of a life wheel which may include areas such as work, personal development, money, home, health, friends, community, spirituality, recreation and so on.

Areas  
Work  
Personal Development  
Money  
Home  

Step 2:

Write down all the perceived threats in each of these areas.

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkI feel overloaded at work because we are working shifts to enforce social distancing. 
Personal DevelopmentWhat happens if I lose my job, can I be relevant in a remote working environment? 
MoneyWe may need to take pay cuts for the business to survive. I don’t know if I can financially cope. 
HomeI am stressed because I need to take care of my family and I don’t feel emotionally up to it. 

Step 3:

If you can it is also a good idea to write down if you have a concept of the time when this might happen.

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkI feel overloaded at work because we are working shifts to enforce social distancing.Current as this is happening now.
Personal DevelopmentWhat happens if I lose my job, can I be relevant in a remote working environment?This may or may not happen but it is a concern.
MoneyWe may need to take pay cuts for the business to survive. I don’t know if I can financially cope.This seems to be imminent, but I don’t know when and the details of the pay cuts. How much and for how long.  
HomeI am stressed because I need to take care of my family and I don’t feel emotionally up to it.Current, this is impacting myself and my family now.

Step 4:

Next categorize each entry as follows: red (disastrous), yellow (threatening) and green (concern).

AreasThreatsTiming
WorkI feel overloaded at work because we are working shifts to enforce social distancing.Current as this is happening now.
Personal DevelopmentWhat happens if I lose my job, can I be relevant in a remote working environment?This may or may not happen but it is a concern.
MoneyWe may need to take pay cuts for the business to survive. I don’t know if I can financially cope.This seems to be imminent, but I don’t know when and the details of the pay cuts. How much and for how long.  
HomeI am stressed because I need to take care of my family and I don’t feel emotionally up to it.Current, this is impacting myself and my family now.

Step 5:

This mapping gives us the ability to plan and prioritise to turn from catastrophe into a series of events that can be managed when we have enough psychological and mental space to deal with them one thing at a time. To return to the example above it is clear that the areas to focus on would be the feeling of overwhelm at the office and the inability to cope emotionally at home. These are topics which are the domain of the helping professions, such as coaches, doctors, counsellors, therapists, etc. A good way forward would be to speak to one of them to help formulate strategies on a way forward.

I hope you find this a useful tool which you can apply to yourself, your family, your team, your community initiatives, and so on. I was amazed at the volume of feedback, comments and messages I received from people on social media who where thanking me for the previous article. Some expressed that it helped them identify feelings and emotions that they had not really understood and that they were judging themselves for. I write about a variety of topics normally related to business but as there has been such a big response to this article I would like to hear from you if you like to see more information on a variety of tips, tools and ways of this sort. Please respond to any of my articles on linked in social media or connect with me via my website and let me know if you would find this useful. I would love to be of service where I can.