Martyn Drake: Take a step back and... recharge

For many of us, the emotional scaffolding of normal times and office life have disappeared during the pandemic, and understanding how this affects different people is key to a successful recovery

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

It would be easy to conclude from social media that lockdown should be a golden time for learning, personal growth and proving to ourselves we can take lemons and make lemonade. Or sourdough. Or banana bread. But for most people it’s actually pretty gruelling.

Some are working harder and longer than ever, while home-schooling kids, shielding relatives and doing what they can for colleagues and neighbours. 

Some leaders, like those at St John Ambulance, Oxfam and many others like them, are having to make some of the toughest calls while under career-defining levels of pressure. And unexpected team dynamics are only adding to the tension for us all. 

Most of us recognise our colleagues are under pressure, but few of us have taken the time to step back and properly understand what’s really going on, and what we need to do about it.

One of the most oft-cited research papers about the psychological impact of crises was produced by Zunin and Myers (Phases of Disaster, 1992) in which they identified distinct phases: impact, heroic response, honeymoon, disillusionment, reconstruction and recovery. 

We’ve seen the high energy of the initial heroic response, not just in communities responding to lockdown, but in how rapidly many charities rolled out new systems and practices, some delivering 18 months of planned work in less than a week. 

We’ve seen the honeymoon phase, of running on adrenaline, rolling up the sleeves and making big, bold decisions, powered by a combination of acute “eustress” (positive stress) and the recognition that “we have no choice; we just have to do it”.

And many of us, whether we like it or not, because this is what happens, are now moving into the chronic stress phase, the phase Zunin and Myers dubbed disillusionment.

There is an appreciation that this will be a difficult road and there will be a realisation that, for some of us, keeping up our energy and keeping our emotions together will become harder by the week.

And there’s a specific reason why, in our current situation, this is proving increasingly difficult.

We all have our own, unique personality profiles. Whether extrovert or introvert, open or closed, agreeable or disagreeable (to quote three from the "five factors model"), these are what psychologists describe as enduring traits. 

They don’t define who we are, per se, because as we mature professionally we learn to modify our behaviour. Those of us who are naturally disagreeable learn how to land our tough messages with thoughtfulness and compassion, while our naturally agreeable colleagues learn how to handle more challenging conversations with calm resilience.

But acting outside our default traits takes energy. An extrovert hosting or presenting to a crowd gains energy. An introvert steps off the stage proud but exhausted.

And in normal times we all have our own habits for recharging that energy: a quiet commute or taking lunch alone with the phone switched off; or soaking up the buzz of the office, informal banter in the canteen, drinks after work.

But for many of us those habits and that emotional scaffolding built in an office environment are largely gone.

An introvert switching between back-to-back video calls, before trying to get three kids off the Xbox and onto their maths work, with no commute in between, is as bereft of the recharging opportunity as an extrovert whose entire social life is reduced to 20 seconds of “how was your weekend” at the start of each call and a virtual pub quiz on a Friday night.

To meet this energy crisis, some organisations are limiting formal meetings to no more than 30 minutes in an hour. 

Some have WhatsApp chats while meetings are happening. Some have social check-in sessions on a Friday. One of my clients has hired a “Zoom magician” (yes, there really are magicians who perform over Zoom) as one of a battery of social and team activities. 

The point is, there are ways to recharge, both individually and collectively, even in lockdown.

But just as our old re-energising habits were bespoke to our personalities, so must these new models work for the vast diversity of our people’s needs. 

The most important first step, therefore, is awareness. 

Awareness of how this unique situation is affecting people in different ways; of how it’s affecting energy, outlook and behaviour; and, in turn, how that’s likely to be affecting team dynamics. 

Even if you’re personally not being affected (and you probably are), there are people around you who will be.

Of course, the flip side to all of this is this: if you can help your people build new scaffolding, new routines and habits, new ways to recharge, energise and breathe positivity back into your organisation now, at this very worst of times, your organisation, your team and you as an individual will all come out of this far stronger, more adaptable and more resilient than you ever were before. 

Even if you still can’t make sourdough.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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