How to Help Your Team Get Out of a Lull
Leaders today are facing a challenge. While they need their employees to get up to speed, feel the competitive hunger to win again, and to rekindle collaboration, they’re facing an odd kind of inertia: Priorities are fuzzy, progress is slow, and social interactions feel somewhat awkward. One senior leadership team described the feeling on her team as “bland with frantic bursts.” So how can leaders help their employees break through the lull? The answer is to set aside “normal” strategies around motivation (goal-setting, incentivizing, tracking the numbers, and pacing for progress with milestones and deadlines) and focus more on managing their team’s energy and understanding the psychological changes their employees have undergone over the past two years.
“Going back to work feels like a reunion party that just can’t get off the ground. It’s nice to see everyone again, but there is no real spark,” a CEO answered when I asked her to describe the sentiment she was picking up on after people had returned to the office.
Right now, there is a clear and present need in most organizations, and among most leaders, to get everyone up to speed, to stimulate the hunger to win again, and to rekindle collaboration. But leaders I’ve worked with across a range of industries and geographies report that even though business is accelerating, and people say they are happy to be back and are optimistic about the future, they face an odd kind of inertia on their teams: Priorities are fuzzy, progress is slow, and social interactions feel somewhat awkward. Indeed, when I asked a senior leadership team to give a “weather report” on the energy of their team, the description that resonated with them the most was “bland with frantic bursts.”
What is going on? And what can leaders do to break out of the lull?
What Causes a Lull in the Aftermath of a Crisis
Recovery can be disorienting, like stepping into bright sunlight when you have been in a dark room. The condition has many names. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls it “languishing.” Social psychologist Amy Cuddy and author JillEllyn Riley describe it as “pandemic flux syndrome.” And even though those are not clinical terms, they seem to capture the polarizing recovery we are going through: a mix of relief and grief.
However, unlike getting used to daylight, this may not just be a momentary adjustment. It may be a rather a seismic — and lasting — shift in our attitude towards work. Just witness the numerous reports from desperate HR departments that people have to be dragged, coaxed, or even forced back to the office. Leaders need to address this shift head-on or risk a return marked by disenfranchisement and dullness, rather than vitality and excitement.
To understand what’s happening now is different, consider that the inertia is not just about knocking off the rust and getting back in motion, but the sum of several more profound psychological dynamics.
For example, to some, the pandemic has exposed the pointlessness of their work and lifted their appreciation of other aspects of life. As a specialist at a retail company told me, “For more than a year I got a taste of what work could be like. Flexible hours with less surveillance and supervision. I have never been as productive.” Many like him are now resisting the return of authority, micromanagement, endless coordination, and rote meetings.
Also consider that the pandemic has reshaped how people think and feel about competition and rivalry. As a leader in a health company that took part in delivering Covid test capacity said, “The answer to the crisis was collaboration between rivals. Strange bedfellows made all the difference. I don’t think I’ll ever again be motivated by outrunning the competition.”
Finally, and most profoundly, the pandemic has changed many people’s sense of purpose and self-identity. “There is no way I am going to go back to being the person I was before all this,” said a consultant who, in her own words “used to put in 100-hour work weeks on projects with no real purpose.”
Finding solutions for these challenges isn’t easy because of a paradox: A lot of the received wisdom about motivation — goal-setting, incentivizing, tracking the numbers, and pacing for progress with milestones and deadlines — fails to produce the motivational burst needed to break out of today’s lull. In fact, deploying these kinds of management evergreens may come across as theater and fail to connect emotionally with people. It is as if the masks of corporate life have fallen.
That leaves leaders in a tight spot: The problem is evident and urgent, but the conventional toolbox is not fit for purpose. Instead of “beating the drum,” leaders must tune in to the underlying psychological needs that emerge in the aftermath of a crisis.
What to Do about a Lull
Developmental psychology offers a clue to what is going on and how to deal with the problem. The “bland with frantic bursts” weather report is a key characteristic of life transitions like relationship changes, economic hardship, or retirement.
On the one hand, blandness or a lack of emotion is a defense mechanism in response to confusion, loss, and the emotional toil of adapting to a new set of circumstances. On the other, the frantic bursts emerge from frustration and cycles of trial-and-error — but also from occasional breakthroughs that open the door to a new way of coping with life and work.
Therefore, leaders who want to be successful at rebooting their teams should be mindful of the underlying emotional transitions people are going through. Having observed many leaders in action over the last months, we can learn what these “reboot leaders” who navigate the transition deftly do differently from peers that fail to get traction.
The main difference is that reboot leaders manage team energy with as much intent and dedication as they manage performance. Overall, they recognize that their overarching leadership challenge is setting in motion “energy ripples” in every interaction rather than pushing for performance, monitoring and correcting, or talking solely about tasks, to-dos, desired outcomes or results. Here’s how:
First, reboot leaders resist the urge to signal that they have all the answers.
They are willing to tolerate frustration and not knowing, and accept and handle uncertainties. In psychology, we call this trait “negative capability” — the ability to know the limits of what you can and cannot know and can and cannot affect.
As a result, these leaders create energy from inventing the future and experimenting and finding the answers together. This requires a shift in leadership style from crisis management, which calls for a fast, top-down, unequivocal style, to explorative leadership, which is more open, inclusive, and nuanced. For example, the London arm of the global consultancy BCG, led by Mai-Britt Poulsen, took a structured approach with a “back to the future” week, where teams were asked to stage sessions to explore how career, work-life, and client impact can be improved based on the lessons of the pandemic.
Second, reboot leaders renew the psychological contract with their team members.
Often unwritten and unspoken, a psychological contract is what makes you feel bound to your team. This might consist of a promise you once made to a colleague, an affection for them, a commitment to finish what you started together, or a set of standards and ideals that you live by in your group.
A psychological contract is much more important than a formal contract or job description because it covers what really keeps us connected to our work lives and teams. It has complex and personal origins and encompasses the totality of why your working relationships truly matter to you and what you have to offer one another, beyond just getting the job done.
So, rather than assuming that team members just want to get back to their desks and their “pre-pandemic” psychological contracts, leaders should assume that the pandemic has been a moment of reckoning. Many people are reconsidering their life goals and work identities. And with so many tasks piled up, it’s so easy to get absorbed by what’s urgent instead of having more fundamental and existential conversations.
Therefore, beyond the immediate question about what to do now, leaders should make sure to have bigger conversations and listen hard. The first step is to understand the personal transitions that each team member is going through. For example, ask “What has the last year taught you about yourself and how has that changed where you want to steer your life and career?” This will help you find out how to renew the psychological contract and reset and reconnect the team.
Third, reboot leaders skillfully cultivate “good drama” to elicit more energy from their teams.
Over the last year and a half, adrenaline has been high on many teams. Now, many companies are entering a period with fewer emergencies. A government advisor confided to me that she “actually misses the intensity and urgency of the last year.”
She’s not alone. The recognition that something big is at stake is indeed motivating and energizing. So, lead as if the current moment is another transition phase, not a stabilization phase. Leaders might consider emphasizing that the goal of work today is not about returning to normality and slowing down after an intense period, but a matter of accelerating out of the aftermath of the crisis.
As one leader of a company that did exceedingly well during Covid noted: “Now is the real test. The crisis tossed all the boats around on the ocean with some going under and others, like us, rising to the top. Now, we have to take hold of the rudder once again and shape our own destiny.”
So, consider embodying a more dramatic, inventive leadership style in contrast to the “safe pair of hands” management style that is in demand during a crisis. For example, reboot leaders come to meetings full of vigor and poise instead of looking tired and bored. One such leader made a habit of throwing in a bit of dissonance during his sessions with his team, making remarks like, “Right there you came alive again. This point must be very important to you? Tell me why?”
The purpose of this “good drama” is to tease out and pinpoint the significance of what you are doing together. That entails making everyone’s contribution matter, not just that of the crisis heroes. Today, clever leaders are reassessing who should take center stage, rather than just letting the usual suspects continue on auto pilot.
Still, don’t confuse drama with extroverted theatrics. Don’t go overboard and steer clear of the cheerleading, put-on-a-happy-face kind of energy. The real magic lies in connecting with one another with appropriate intensity, warmth, and enthusiasm.
In addition, a simple way to start making energy ripples is to make a commitment to connect with at least three of your colleagues every day with a phone call, a text, or a personal check-in. The point of the interaction is short and singular: to energize that person with praise, constructive feedback, or perhaps a motivating challenge. This can take less than five minutes, but the effect will be massive because energy is contagious. The bonus is that when you energize someone else, your own spirit is usually lifted as well.
Today’s challenge is not just about taking back the reins to run business as usual. It is not about getting people back in their old chairs, a year later. It is not about having ordinary conversations about the daily grind or making a clichéd pep-talk.
Instead, the challenge is about starting and stimulating fundamental conversations about lasting change, professional reinvention, and a reordering of the values and world views that guide our work lives. It is to manage your own energy and the energy of your team, creating ripples to help everyone thrive.
To the goal-seeking leader with an endless to-do list, it may feel like a detour to take the time for a deep dive on team energy instead of pacing for performance. The natural response to backlogs, bottlenecks, and ballooning workloads is to talk frantically about “what to get done, when and how.” But that may be the road to overload rather than decompression and energy release. The real need is not to be told what to do, but how to cope. Reboot leaders build emotional surplus in their teams by talking about why we are here, what we want to achieve together, and how work can be even more rewarding.