exhausted team

How to lead an exhausted team when you feel the same

How many people on your team are feeling worn out? Business as usual feels like a thing of the distant past and any more “pivoting” will be too much for an already exhausted team.

Shutting down, returning to work, a second shut down (and a third?) and now continued uncertainty — anticipating, planning, scrambling, and trying to keep it all together has taken a toll on everyone. (And then there is all the personal stress people have been dealing with!)

But many of the leaders we work with tell us that it’s not just their team members who are exhausted: They’re worn out, too.

How do you lead an exhausted team when you feel the same way?

We’re hearing similar stories from leaders across a wide variety of industries and locations. Not only are their teams struggling, leaders confess they’re feeling:

  • A roller coaster of emotions
  • Hopeful, but behind
  • Less creative and agile
  • Stressed about dealing with the way the work world has changed and the world in general
  • Uncertainty and fatigue
  • Demotivated and foggy (what some experts call “pandemic fatigue”)
  • Worries they’ve got to figure out how to avoid leadership burnout

It’s not surprising that exhausted leaders with exhausted teams also report:

  • Workplace tensions increasing
  • Witnessing (or personally experiencing) emotional outbursts
  • Low employee morale
  • Employee turnover
  • More stress leave/sick days

These feelings are rampant, whether the leader works in an industry that’s booming, treading water or floundering.

When it’s hard to find enthusiasm and focus as a leader, it’s nearly impossible to reassure your team and inspire those you’re trying to lead.

What can we as leaders do for ourselves and an exhausted team?

Actively build resilience. Sometimes we’re focused on productivity in the workplace, but we need to build resilience alongside productivity. As leaders, we need to do this for ourselves and we have to demonstrate how to break negative thought cycles, set healthy habits, focus on what we can control (“with the information we have right now, our plan is X”), learn from our mistakes, and more. Our capacity to overcome difficulties is a skill that we can develop, in ourselves and our team members.

Dig deep and find the ability to keep going. It turns out if Covid were a race, it would be a marathon, and we’re not sure if we’re past the halfway point or in the home stretch. Yet most of us approached it 18 months ago, as a sprint. And, many of us are still running like it’s a sprint. Instead, it requires a steady pace with some leadership self-care so that you’re not running on empty. If you know you’re barely coping, take a mental health day (or long weekend!) to rest and restore your mind, body and spirit. That means keep your phone turned off and spend time doing what you truly enjoy. (And, by the way, that’s modelling healthy habits for your team!)

Resolve to regain a sense of control. When we’re busy and consumed by constant demands, seemingly endless worries and that overwhelming uncertainty, it’s usually pretty certain that we’re staying busy but we’re not really being productive. At the same time, not being busy feels wrong when work feels unpredictable or precarious. When you take steps to regain control, you’ll feel more collaborative, creative, effective and resilient. THAT makes your leadership feel more positive, confident and stable — all of which is what you need to lead an exhausted team!

Set priorities. You and your team need actionable and achievable goals (yes — set goals for this crazy time), but also priorities that determine what is important and what is urgent. Often we have a very human tendency to focus mainly on what feels urgent and then we need a break or lose stamina before we get to the other stuff. Instead, what are we missing that is important but not yet urgent? What important things are out there that we’re not focusing on because we’re driven by that urgent item of the day? How can you get ideas flowing again about what we’re not doing that is important? And, what are we overwhelmed by that could be let go or, heaven forbid, sent onward as “good enough”?

We’ve highlighted the Eisenhower matrix as a great tool for this purpose in an earlier blog about living in a constant state of urgency. It helps you sort tasks into four quadrants: urgent, or not and important, or not. You want to be putting your effort into working on what is important and NOT urgent so that you catch important items before you’re facing an urgent situation.

Keep listening and observing. Ask what your team members need for support and listen to what they tell you and what your gut tells you after you observe interactions. Some folks are tired of being told to stay calm and carry on, and now they want to know what to do and how to do it.

What energizes everyone? Maybe it’s time to move from sharing concerns or commiserating over worries to celebrating wins and challenging each other to do things. What people need this week could be different next week or in a month. Keep asking, listening and engaging.

Don’t tackle everything alone. Leverage the talents of your team to figure out the way forward together. People feel more energized when they’re involved and feel heard. Connecting with everyone on a human level may rally them to find a second wind, too. If you’re not already, try using a Coach Approach with your team so that you’re not responsible for directing everyone and doing all of the problem-solving. The bonus is that building a coaching culture helps organizations win big because there is a tangible ripple effect as people learn, grow and brainstorm ideas.

Coach’s Questions:

What has been the most draining for you in recent months? How can you change that or let go of it? What can you do this week to re-energize and lead more effectively? Where do your priorities need to shift?