Building Resiliency and Focus During Stressful Times

Human connection and clear priorities can help you navigate turbulent periods.
By Lindsey Marlowe

Last Updated: February 11, 2021

Published: May 10, 2020


“How are you doing?”

This is the question M13 Partner and Head of Talent Matt Hoffman asked our panel of executive coaches right before our webinar on building resiliency and focus during times of stress. It’s a question that leaders are encouraged to ask their teams in order to both acknowledge today’s stressful climate and reinforce that we’re all human and we’re all trying our best.

“I’m doing well, Matt. COVID well.”

This was panelist Jonathan Raymond’s answer, a response appreciated by the group for shining light on our collective inability to consistently and fully be our best selves in this moment. Employees are facing a number of extenuating circumstances that hinder showing up to morning Zoom meetings bright-eyed and ready to take on the day.

So how are leaders able to drive employee engagement and performance in this climate? Matt and our panel of executive coaches discussed ways they can keep their teams positive, focused, and engaged during this particularly stressful moment in time.

  • Rachel Rider is the founder of MettaWorks, an executive coaching and leadership consulting company. She has her executive coaching certification from Columbia University and complements this training with her SEP (Somatic Experiencing Practitioner), an intensive three-year certification focusing on self-regulation and management of the human nervous system. Rachel also has over a decade of experience in the HR professional world including being embedded in house at Bloomberg, AppNexus, and DigitalOcean.
  • Jonathan Raymond is the author of Good Authority and founder and CEO of Refound. He has over 15 years of experience advising founders, CEOs, and managers on how to have performance conversations that connect business objectives to personal growth.
  • Jonathan Basker is the founder and CEO of Basker & Co. and has spent his career becoming an expert in how humans operate and cooperate inside of early-stage companies. His early career focused on cultivating talent and culture at companies like Etsy, BarkBox, Handy, InVision, and betaworks, where he was one of the first people to hold a talent partner-type role within venture and developed the Hacker-in- Residence program—one of the original models for the VC studio ecosystem. He now supports emerging leaders as an executive coach and sports companies through organizational change and growth.

Acknowledging that every company is dealing with its own set of obstacles, what are healthy performance goals for teams under these conditions?

Rider: We’re all being pulled in so many different directions so start with questions that help with prioritization. The first major fundamental step [to help] is defining the why: “Why are we doing what we’re doing as an organization? What’s our mission?” Looking at those questions from both an organizational standpoint as well as within your own team is important. As an individual, [you can ask]: “Why am I showing up every day? How does that help inform my priorities?”

Basker: First and foremost, take a step back. Get as clear as you can about what’s going on. In a moment like this, the hardest yet healthiest thing to do is get to the truth of things, even if it’s not pleasant. One of the first things a client and I did today was separate the distinction between operational needs and organizational needs; they’re interwoven but separate. Make sure as a leader that you have clarity on both.

Anxiety tends to provoke avoidance, and avoidance tends to provoke some version of a fight, flight, or freeze. And that’s going to be seen systemically, organizationally, operationally, and individually.

Give your employees as much clarity as possible because clarity is the antidote to anxiety.

Jonathan Basker

I don’t want to dumb it down, but just be human. We’re in a weird moment that is generating a unique response from each of us. Simply asking your team: “How is COVID going for you? What’s hard? What’s nice? How is your family? How can I help you?” It’s really as simple as genuinely engaging with your colleagues. And in order to do that, you’re also going to have to check in with yourself to ensure you’re healthy enough to be able to show up for your people.

How do you drive accountability and performance while still acknowledging that the world is completely different for most people?

Raymond: Start by actually thinking about what is realistic for this person in this role. So much of what was in the closet before needs a fresh look. Ask yourself if what was important before is actually still important. To dovetail what Basker said, have human conversations, and talk about what the expectations were pre-COVID and what they are now. If you can figure out what no longer needs to be true, you can figure out new truths, new goals, and how your team can best collaborate to work toward them.

The biggest mistake managers are making right now is thinking they have to drive performance in the same ways as before. Make sure as a leader that you’re adapting your goals and objectives to this new reality.

Jonathan Raymond

Rider: I would add that this is precisely why it’s so helpful to start with the purpose and mission of your organization, or what I refer to as that “why.” If your employees understand the “why,” it helps inform how they can prioritize their individual objectives to reach your goals in the moment. That’s an important communication.

What should leaders be doing to focus on the most important objectives?

Basker: Right now we’re in this massive shift, but to Raymond’s earlier point, we have this opportunity to really understand what wasn’t working before and how we can improve those things now and in the future.

If you’re feeling breakage right now, it probably existed beforehand but now you have the opportunity to feel it more acutely and more simply.

Jonathan Baskerd

I would encourage leaders to take a no-BS approach to decision making right now. Who is on your team? Who do you really trust? Gather those people; get their insights and opinions. Ask them to gather their teams and get an assessment of the current landscape:

Now that it’s changed, how is information moving or not moving?

Be forensic. This is about actually looking at a project and understanding where did it break? Where did it get stuck? What’s healthy and what’s not?

Rebuild your operating manual for the next X number of months. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take a lot of work. But without that time investment, you won’t see results.

You have to go back to the drawing board and ask yourself what you need to shift, what you need to let go of, what you need to strengthen. Articulate it, write it down, get everyone’s buy-in, and then communicate that plan to the entire org.

Rider: I agree it’s so important for leaders to focus on what is in their control versus what is not. It’s such an important distinction because we can spend so much time on things that are out of our control.

Instead of identifying what’s out of your control, identify what you actually have control over, and make a plan around that.

Rachel Rider

So many of the leaders that I work with, from founders to CPOs to CTOs, are constantly telling me they want to get out of the weeds more, they have too much on their plates, and they want to strengthen those visionary capabilities. Well, now is the time! It’s more important than ever to identify what you’ve been trying to do for a long time and haven’t been able to do, and how you can show up now. How can you reframe these restraints as opportunities? That’s where you start.

How can leaders create more vulnerability and empathy within their organizations?

Raymond: I’ve recently seen so many leaders be vulnerable with their teams without even realizing it. They’re having more honest, open, and human conversations. As executive coaches, we’ve been trying to get them to do this for a long time, but they’re finally doing it now given the current landscape, and they’re realizing that it leads to this virtuous cycle. I would recommend leaders keep this momentum going, and continue to open up and be vulnerable with your teams even post-COVID.

Rider: I encourage leaders to share their own experiences and then ask open-ended questions. For example, “I’m finding it really nice to be home with my son. I get to see him a lot, but there’s also a lot more to carry, and my spouse and I are passing him off in between meetings. How is it going for you?” Other questions I like are:

What are the ways you’re able to get work done?

Knowing our goals as an org, are you finding that you’re able to work toward them right now?

Where is time management becoming a struggle?

Sharing your own personal experiences, offering observations, and then asking open-ended questions actually makes a huge difference in fostering a deeper level of conversation.

The more we have real conversations with our employees, the more invested and deeply loyal they will be to us and the higher they will perform.

Rachel Rider

So if you encounter performance issues, let’s get really curious as leaders and ask: What’s going on? What are the constraints? Work with your team to ruthlessly prioritize to ensure you’re getting what you need and the company is still meeting its needs.

Basker: If someone was a high performer before but is struggling now, at least you have a diagnosis. This is a temporary, unusual situation and right now they’re being affected in a way that makes completing their work difficult for them. Before letting that employee go, I beg leaders to let go of expectations. I like referring to the quote, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” Try to dissolve the thinking that “it has to go a certain way or else it’s wrong” the power dynamics in a COVID environment aren’t fair to the employee. Try to give your employees kudos when you see they’re doing well, and understand why and how they’re struggling when they’re not. Offer them help, support, and guidance. Think through the lens of what is the most positive outcome for both the team and the business? And remember individuals are a part of that.

Raymond: We do a lot of work with organizations that have a mix of office workers and factory workers a lot of highly technical folks. I think it’s worth mentioning that this conversation we’re having is a luxury. Being able to have conversations around vulnerability and talking to people about their well being that’s rarefied air in our economy right now. There are a lot of people who are under enormous amounts of pressure that some of us can’t even imagine. So if we can’t do this in the privileged office environment that enables employees to work from home, then forget it.

If you want to change the world, start within your own organization. Start with the people you’re working with, and remember that so many others have nothing even remotely resembling a manager who is investing in their well-being right now.

Jonathan Raymond

So what does high performance look like now?

Raymond: To put it simply: more human, more vulnerable, keep going. I think COVID has accelerated a lot of trends that were starting to form before this all happened, such as organizations transitioning to work from home, realizing they don’t really need that expensive lease. An environment that lacks a lot of the visual context we get in face-to-face interactions requires leveling up the need for feedback, dialogue, and open-ended questions. This is what any good CPO or passionate culture CEO has been talking about for the last 18 months, but it’s more important now than ever.

Rider: There’s a clear theme of bringing your humanity to work. There’s a level of autonomy in asking people to think about how they want to show up at work and how they want to deliver on their goals, now that the workday looks a little different due to increased extenuating demands. So I think it’s about fostering human connection, ruthless prioritization, and clarity in your messages. The clearer the goals are for the organization, the team, and the individual, the better people will perform, the better they will understand how they should get work done, what work matters, and how they should manage their time to do so. You need both increased humanity, clear prioritization, and communication across the company.

Basker: I don’t really think there’s new things to be discovered in the future of work post-COVID. I think we already know what the trends are and where we need to go, and I hope that as terrible as this moment is, it may accelerate some really positive outcomes. I don’t think the future of work is determined by the workplace. I think it’s determined by the people and their lives outside of the workplace and what our expectations for work are.

We’re now reminded that we’re living a life, and it’s moving. And I think most people are going to come back to work wanting more. People will want more intrinsic yearning, motivation, and meaning, and less external reward systems.

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