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3 ways for leaders to combat January blues and get their teams on track

At the very time organisations need their people to hit the ground running, they are faced with the doldrums that is the January Blues. This is the most depressing month of the year AND we are dealing with lockdown to boot. No matter how optimistic and energetic you are, the chivvying of the troops just won’t cut it right now. A more thoughtful approach is required. So, how can you help people perform despite the disaster that is around us?

But before we do, let’s just check in with what has been happening. It is a reality check to see it all listed in black & white which can generate new thinking for you. Let’s also recognise that there is a real polarisation of opinions and experiences in response to the situation. The events for each person last year were very different; with some people really benefiting from the measures whilst others suffering significant trauma.

2020 in a nutshell

Last year was horrendous for most organisations and many people. 2020 was a year of major disruption to the way we live, work and play.

During that year not only did we have the health crisis but this led to a significant economic downturn.

  • Overnight people shifted to working from home.
  • Parents needed to balance lockdown, working from home whilst home schooling their children.
  • For many there was the added complexity of trying to continue to support friends and family members who were shielding, alone.
  • Others live solo and have been working and living in isolation in a bedsit or studio flat.
  • Many have loved ones who contracted the virus and some, sadly, have died.
  • A loss of the traditional places of social connection. Pubs, clubs restaurants, gyms, music venues and theatres have all been in a jittering holding pattern with many of them forced to permanently close their doors permanently.
  • Only a few lucky people managed to get away for a break during the year and
  • For many, the most exercise they get each day is walking from their bed to the laptop on the kitchen table via the kettle!
  • Whilst this was all going on, people took to the streets to support Black Lives Matter which positively opened up the debate about diversity and inclusion.

All of this was in addition to the trends that continue to reshape the way we work like digitalisation, business model transformation and automation. And now we are hit with the January Blues to top it all.

These elements all conspired to create a rollercoaster of ambiguity and anxiety that impacts not just your people’s performance but their wellbeing too.

Some statistics to focus your attention

In a survey commissioned by The Office Group1 late last year they found that for many, lockdown has been particularly challenging, with

  • A third (32%) saying it has brought them closer to burnout.
  • Workers felt that they worked longer hours due to having their workstation close to them (31%) and
  • The lack of social interaction (27%) had contributed to making the time particularly difficult.
  • The millennial generation, who make up 50% of the UK workforce are now experiencing the second economic recession in their adult lifetime.  Adding to their anxiety includes working longer hours while working from home (59%), being unable to separate work and personal life (42%), and facing an uncertain, increasingly competitive job market (33%).

It’s not enough now to keep chivvying on the troops and hoping they will stay on purpose. You own determination and grit will only go so far.

We all know that the world won’t bounce back to pre-Covid times and frankly nor do we want it to. There have been seismic shifts in both consumer and employee preferences, business models and ways of working.

People are the heartbeat of organisations. It is their confidence, drive and skill that will help organisations survive and thrive. But this more complex and ambiguous environment demands organisations become more agile. You need your people to be skilled to engage with this.

So where do you go from here?

Beating the January Blues

You can’t move forward beyond the January Blues unless your people are ready, willing and able. The first step is line managers working with their teams to build resilience and drive despite the difficulties being faced.

8 Tips for helping people navigate a crisis

We cannot ignore that the world is in turmoil. The usual approaches will simply plaster over the cracks in the short term. People have had to deal with so much this year. It’s vital to reflect this in the way leaders work with their teams. The response people have to disaster needs to be acknowledged and responded to. This is far more than the usual impact of change we talk about with organisations. It is deeper rooted, so the role managers play cannot avoid dealing with the messy human stuff; no matter how much they’d like to.

According to Zunin and Myers (1990) there are six phases of disaster.

Zunin & Myers Phases of disaster

The phases speak for themselves. As you can see from the graph, we are all heading towards the bottom of the graph. So, what can leaders do to help people move towards a more proactive focus?

We talk about being more connected and human as leaders. There is no time better than now to really step in and support their teams by being both compassionate and optimistic. Everything has changed this year and not in a good way. People are disillusioned and this drives feelings of negativity, demotivation and isolation. Leaders can inadvertently make matters worse if they do not appreciate and acknowledge the difference in emotions that they might feel compared to those of their team.

3 ways to support your team

1. Leaders need to provide hope.

We know a vaccine is on its way but we don’t quite know how long that will be. Leaders need to invoke hope supported by realism. Realism that is about acceptance that we won’t return to normal, but together we can return better and stronger. Start to explore with the team what that might look like. Encourage them to be hopeful and focus on what the gains can be, not what they have lost.

2. Leaders need to listen, deeply

As you hear people talk about loss, listen carefully and acknowledge their feelings. You need to pace them before you can lead them in the direction you need. Some won’t want to talk specifically about their feelings. Therefore, a safe place to start is to explore their experiences during this period with questions about their experience.

3. Leaders need to support their teams to build resilience

Simultaneously with their focus of care, leaders need to build resilience and flexibility by offering additional learning and support where needed.

In doing this, leaders are starting to mark out a better future. One in which listening, learning from each other and collaboration is key to success. Many leaders shy away from opening up conversations for fear that they may not be able to deal with what comes out. Keeping a lid on things simply won’t work anymore. People need more. They are right to need more from their manager. If you fail to respond, your organisation will be in trouble. For some leaders, particularly more junior managers this is a daunting task. We promise you will be surprised by the response you get. People don’t expect you to have all the answers but they do expect you to care how they feel; how they really feel.

Quick ideas to combat January Blues

Some quick ideas

Three ways to help individuals combat January Blues are:

  1. Show you care. Connect personally with your team by asking questions about how they are and what they are up to. If this feels a little personal ask more functional questions to help them open up. Questions like:
    • “How has working from home been for you?” or
    • “If you look back on the past year what have been the biggest challenges you have had to deal with?”
  2. Keep their focus. Set manageable goals. Help people break these down into simple chunks.
  3. Celebrate with them to help keep people on track. Celebration doesn’t need to be the popping of champagne corks but it does need to be genuine appreciation.

Then as a team get together:

  • Explore team goals and how you can all help each other
  •  Ask them what they need from you, and
  • Most of all, even if you feel low, get yourself ready to do this with energy and drive.

Your ability to thrive is under threat until leaders, at all levels, help their people move through the January Blues. You do this by starting to reconstruct a positive future and build hope.

This investment in your people is an essential component for future success. Make it count.

Have a look at this bog on ‘Doing More with less’ for more ideas

We’d love to hear your ideas about how you, as leaders, are helping your team right now. Remember, sharing ideas not only helps you deepen your commitment bit will trigger ideas for others. When we work together, we are all stronger. Good luck!