Four Ways to Help a Stressed-Out Team Focus

Friends and clients are confiding in me that it's incredibly challenging to focus right now.  That should be no surprise to leaders everywhere as we've maneuvered two years of "unprecedented" times with the pandemic and its workplace, political, and societal upheavals only to have a war in Ukraine, inflation, and supply chain problems unfold.

I know, I didn't want to be reminded of all that either, but our brains are always trying to figure these things out it in the background in order to keep us safe.  That leaves less processing time available for the tasks at hand, which brings me back to focus.

How can you help your team get the most out of the minimalized energy available to them?

  • Keep instructions simple, in order, and communicate them in multiple ways.
    Just telling someone to do something isn't enough.  Follow-up with a bullet-point email and make sure every instruction is as simple and precise as possible.  Checking up on comprehension and progress and sending out deadline reminders isn't micromanaging (it's actually a good thing) unless you take it too far and undermine their autonomy.
  • Break long-term goals into shorter ones.
    Vision is great, but long-term planning may be too much for some people right now.  Leaders can break these goals into shorter ones, and focus on one at a time, having team members place that goal in a prominent place that they see regularly.  This connects them to purpose and helps them focus on one step at a time, while managing feelings of overwhelm.
  • Express empathy.
    In the dozens of phone calls I've had with high-achieving employees, the one leadership characteristic that they express is the most needed is almost always empathy.  During stressful times, that's what's going to keep your best team members and lower attrition rates in general.  When people feel understood and supported, stress can be lowered dramatically, which in turn will increase the ability to focus.
  • Be consistent.
    People like knowing where they stand in situations and in relationship to others.  Now is not the time for unnecessary change.  Try to be as consistent in your words and actions as possible.  Yes, we all need to be resilient and adapt to change, but high stress situations make that more difficult.  Don't have the same expectations of your team (or yourself) to manage change as you did pre-pandemic.

No one expects leaders to be superheroes right now.  Your team will understand if you are struggling with the same human things they are.  Just show up and be the best human you can right now.

Dr. Nancy Williams is a leadership coach and semi-retired music educator, having taught hundreds of elite students, managed an internationally-recognized community ensemble, and performed with the San Diego Ballet, The Temptations, and The Four Tops.  She helps overwhelmed overachievers lead with joy and empowerment.

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