“That’s the sun’s pattern right there. If you’re worried, you can just touch it and get strong again.” In Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent book the protagonist is an AI girl, powered by the sun. Her human best friend Josie is ill, and the AI is intent on getting the sun’s power to cure Josie, too. This reminds me of the situation people managers are facing right now: with a workforce that’s tired, isolated, and weary after a year of remote work, how can they re-inject ‘power’ into their teams? And how do they do it in a team-centric way, instead of falling into the Ishiguro AI-trap: assuming the team is energised by the same things as the manager?
Many moons ago in 1990, two researchers created a model for burnout prevention based on three elements: Demand, Support, and Control. In a nutshell, a ‘healthy combination’ is when a worker’s (perceived) control and support are high – in which case demand can be high or low. The dangerous combination is when demand (external from others, or internal from oneself) is high, and control and support are low.
So, what relevance does this classic burnout theory and Ishiguro’s new book have for us now? Working as a Hintsa Mentor and psychologist, it seems that people’s ‘lived experience’ of power has been changing over the last year. And when I say ‘power’, I mean a kind of deep, intangible life force. From fresh phenomenological research, power distils down to two aspects:
- Sources of power – the gains and drains of life, and
- Agentic power – the control we have to effect change.
Every people manager should be aware of where they stand in terms of power – for themselves and for their teams. So, let’s use the Demands-Control–Support model to break it down and identify how to lead energy and fight fatigue.
Demand – Do you know what powers you and your staff?
What powers you as a team and as individuals? Whatever this power source is: is it available, is it effective, or do you need to create new power sources? Right now, many people are reporting fatigue, weariness, lack of motivation, apathy – our collective get-up-and-go got up and went. And one of a manager’s tasks is to support staff through these challenges. Discovering what powers each individual could help both you and them finesse their experience and performance.
Of course, not everyone is suffering – if you have staff who are thriving, ask what they’re doing: ‘Appreciative Enquiry’ is a well-validated psychological coaching method for finding the positive aspects of peoples’ experiences and performance. Note that as a manager, you may be a power source for your staff, helping them keep away from the ‘danger zone’. This in turn could drain your own power, which means a crucial part of powering your team is to keep yourself resourced.
Questions to ask:
- Who or what powers me? Is it working? Is there enough of this power source? Do I need to create new power sources?
- Who or what powers my staff? Are they getting enough? Do I need to encourage or co-create new power sources for them?
- Am I as a manager a power conduit, i.e. I need to gain power elsewhere to disperse it to others? If so, am I getting enough power so as not to end up empty?
Demand – Have you honed your self-awareness to know your overload tell?
How do we know whether we are powered up? Whether we are gaining or draining? We need to develop self-awareness of our power drains and power gains, and act accordingly. If you don’t check in on yourself to notice early warning signs of fatigue, weariness, or overload – and act on it – then eventually your body will hunt you down.
So, learn your ‘overload tell’: what part of your body is your weak spot that acts as a warning sign for you to slow down, stop, or recover? For example, my overload tell is my lips.
Consider this advice as ‘self-cultivation’: a mix of health and personal growth. You may be sighing at the suggestion of growth right now, but challenging times do present an opportunity to increase our self-knowledge – what renders life meaningful for us, and what makes us tick. If we can get one thing out of this year, it could be greater awareness about ourselves, our lives, and our teams.
Questions to ask:
- What is my (and my staff’s) physical and mental overload ‘tell’?
- How can I regularly ‘check in’ on myself?
- What, if anything, am I learning about myself and my team at the moment?
- What, if anything, is an unrelenting drain on me and what can I do about it?
- What, if anything, is a continual gain for me and what can I do about it?
Make it a routine to check in on yourself twice daily whilst cleaning your teeth. Stand on one leg and while the muscles and tendons micro-adjust, reflect: how is my mental balance today? What is the balance of my staff or team? What needs some dynamic adaption so that my body, mind, or team doesn’t unbalance and topple over? Right now, everything is changeable, and as managers we need to dynamically adapt, flex, change – just like when we’re balancing on one leg.
Control – What is your level of agentic power?
Agentic power is the idea that we can create change in the world. Right now, many people report feeling less agentic and in control of what happens to them and around them. People also report having less ‘self-efficacy’ – the notion that “I can do it”. This resembles a psychological theory called ‘learned helplessness’. This theory suggests that after repeated uncontrollable bad events, people may accept their powerlessness and end up in a state of permanent distress.
If an individual is stuck in ‘learned helplessness’, a manager or coach can, with careful listening and skilful questioning, tease out where a person is experiencing control and agentic power. This is a good start. Where can you or your staff effect change? (Again – this is the ‘Appreciative Enquiry’ technique). Once even a sliver of agency has been established, go for contagion – see how the staff member can grow these feelings of perceived power, agency, and self-efficacy.
Questions to ask:
- When do you feel control and agentic power? Is it doing something particular, with certain people or in a certain domain?
- What about your staff? What is their sense of agency, power, control? What could you do to increase it?
Every night before sleep, take note of your accomplishments from that day – even if it is just brushing your teeth standing on one leg and checking in on yourself!
Control – Do you know what emotions you are feeling?
Many of my clients have been baffled by their emotional repertoire over the past year. Many have experienced a myriad of uncommon emotions we psychologists love to label, such as ‘ennui’ (existential boredom with life), ‘anomie’ (alienation and purposelessness), acedia (listlessness, daunting apathy, and hopelessness), and ‘saudade’ (longing for something lost).
We are often controlled by thoughts and feelings we are unaware of. One of my jobs as a psychologist is to help people understand the richness of their emotional life. The better an emotion is recognised, named, and understood, the better a person can start to create agency around that emotion. Recognising emotions can require patient questioning by professionals, but once emotions (and thoughts) are conscious, they become depowered and have less control over us.
Emotional and stress contagion may also play a part – emotions and stress (positive and negative) easily spread between people and become amplified. We are affected by and sometimes take on other peoples’ moods, behaviours, and feelings. Again, the best way to start dealing with this is awareness of anyone who is a source of positive or negative contagion. Remember, one person’s positive contagion can be another person’s negative contagion – we’re all different.
Questions to ask:
- What emotions did I experience today?
- Am I, or my team experiencing any unusual emotions or thoughts?
Make it a habit to deliberately give time and space for emotions and thoughts. The more aware we are of them, the less control they have over us. You can combine feeling and thought investigation with deliberately noticing your breathing, for example whilst you are in the shower.
Support – Can you inject hope and play to the work week?
Along with helplessness, people are also experiencing increased hopelessness – like the world has changed and possibilities have diminished. Us humans crave hope: Snoopy is Barack Obama’s favourite cartoon because it is all about hope (and because there are no adults in it).
So how can we create hope? Psychologists would suggest careful goal setting, while philosopher Martin Buber suggests play – “Play is the exultation of the possible”. Life may not be very playful right now (and it’s not advisable to make it so in all situations), but ask yourself: how could you create play in your life and encourage your staff to do the same? Ideally, play with other people – many are experiencing forced solitude and we are a pro-social species after all. ‘Play’ doesn’t need to be organised fun – it can be as simple as factoring in a mood booster to the last call of the afternoon on e.g. Wednesdays and Fridays to end the day or week on a high note.
Questions to ask:
- What playful things can I introduce in my working week for myself and my staff?
- When, during the working week, could I create a social get together for my team?
Introduce something novel into your day or week. The past year has severely reduced our opportunities for novelty, yet humans are wired to thrive on it. It can be something as simple as ordering a new type of food, reading a different type of book, watching a film from a different genre, or trying a new sport.