By Kenneth Williams, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our lives. Many are away from their physical workplace and are teleworking. Schools ranging from preschool to higher education are delayed, implementing safety measures, and attempting to conduct face-to-face instruction, virtual instruction, or a hybrid. Administrators are having mixed success in controlling student behavior and enforcing safety measures and upon spikes in coronavirus cases are reversing course. The public is struggling with social distancing and safety recommendations, much of which is confusing as researchers discover more information about the illness. Is it 6 feet or 16 feet? Should I wear a mask or not? Is the coronavirus really as dangerous as some say? Businesses are laying off employees while others are closing. Most of the deceased had an underlying condition. Am I safe if I do not have an underlying condition? What about sports? What about going to restaurants and bars? When will we get back to normal? When will there be a vaccine? Some people claim to have all the answers. They are suspicious of the experts. They are right and everyone else is wrong. Who can I trust? This pandemic is chaotic, confusing, threatening, and does not make sense. It is disrupting our normal lives. If we are not careful, we will self-destruct by being overcome with fear, anxiety, and paralysis.

How do we respond? How do we make sense? How do we avoid making this crisis worse? How do we navigate these uncertain times?

A historical disaster provides insight. In 1949, a team of smokejumpers fought a fire in the Mann Gulch area of Montana. Of the 15 men who jumped in to fight the blaze, begun by a lightning strike and fanned by high temperatures and wind, only three survived. Among high grass and thick forest, the fast-moving fire quickly overcame the team. The team leader, “Wag” Dodge, started a fire which consumed the grass around him (the fuel the fire needed) and yelled for the other team members to drop their tools and run to him, to the spot where he had burned the grass. None of the team members listened to him, but instead, fled for their lives, trying to outrun the fire, but to no avail. Two men survived by sticking together, helping each other, and finding protection in a rocky crevice. (One of the two died later.) Dodge survived as a result of his escape fire.

Actions Leading to Lostness

The events of that disastrous day are recorded in Norman McLean’s Young Men and Fire and analyzed by Karl Weick in The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.[1] Weick identified five causes of team disintegration and individual self-destruction. First, the team disintegrated because they stuck to their familiar model of firefighting, in spite of the evidence they needed to adapt. The team had trained in effective and efficient firefighting techniques, in which they would jump in, extinguish the fire quickly, and get out. They had not trained in fighting such large-scale, persistent fires. When they were overwhelmed, instead of reframing the situation as surviving a fire, they stuck to their firefighting paradigm and eventually abandoned it as the result of an either/or reaction – fight or flight. Since they could no longer fight the fire, they fled. Similarly, we want a quick resolution by doing what we have always done. For example, when facing illness, we follow a familiar pattern – we go to the doctor, receive a diagnosis, obtain medication, follow the doctor’s orders, rest, and let it pass as our body fights the infection. Or, if our illness is serious, we receive extend a treatment and expect to recover in time and life will return to normal. However, we are not prepared for such a contagious and deadly threat as the coronavirus, which exploits physical vulnerabilities and many diverse population groups. Our normal pattern of responding to illness is not effective. Medical experts are advising us to take precautionary measures that completely disrupt our normal way of life. We resist those life altering precautions in pursuit of getting back to normal. We want our workplaces, places of worship, schools, sporting events, restaurants, bars, and families. The reality is if we continue the pursuit of normal, we will self-destruct. Instead of hanging onto the normal of the past, we must adapt and create a new normal that involves creative ways of experiencing the place and people we love. Specifically, this means letting go of traditional workplace, social, and educational activities, such as being physically at the office, dining in restaurants, attending sporting events and entertainment, and face-to-face instruction. While social interaction is essential for development, it is also unsafe and deadly at this time. Humans are very innovative and when we put our minds to it we can develop alternative means of engaging in social interaction.

Second, when their paradigm was no longer effective and they were threatened, each regressed into the fight or flight response and acted in self-preservation, resulting in their eventual death. Instead of abandoning their firefighting model, they could have adopted a fire survival paradigm. In the same way, when we discover our familiar pattern of dealing with illness is not effective and we are overwhelmed with the disruption of our lives, we tend to rebel, deny the threat, and keep doing what is familiar, to our own demise. It has been said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” There are those who deny and dismiss the cautions of medical experts, looking for ways to discredit them. Others refuse to distance themselves socially and to wear a mask, putting others at risk in order to stick with what is normal, familiar, and comfortable. Instead of resisting the threatening environment, we must adopt a coronavirus survival paradigm as collective action, acknowledging that our actions impact the health and safety of the community around us.

Third, their lack of communication hindered collaboration that would have resulted in their survival. There was no dialogue or feedback loop that occurred among the team members. It appears that in general, our communication has devolved into blame, fear mongering, belittling, degrading, and discrediting. Unless we reverse this pattern and begin healthy communication and dialogue on that which is in the best interest and safety of our society and communities, we should not be surprised by further spread of the disease, increased death, and escalating blame, conflict, hate, and anger. Navigating this uncertain pandemic requires us to engage one another in respectful and compassionate dialogue. Now is the time for encouragement, emotional support and collaboration for the common good.

Four, they lost their identity as smokejumpers. The fire was too massive for them to control and extinguish. Instead of being courageous smokejumpers, they were reduced to fearful escapees. As this pandemic continues, our normal life of the past becomes more elusive, and we experience increasing death, many will be overcome by fear and lose the meaning of being human. Care, compassion, and respect will be replaced by self-interest, callousness, and bias. In reality, we may already be experiencing these as many have voiced that the current number of deaths are acceptable and the disproportionate effects on impoverished areas that lack sufficient healthcare are also acceptable.

Fifth, as a result of having lost their identities, they lost their sense of meaning and purpose, and therefore their hope of survival, that is, they lost their way. Life becomes chaotic and does not make sense. Familiar behavior patterns and our systems of membership (teams, society, and community) disintegrate, as we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, abandon our responsibilities and shut down. As ambiguity grows, we discredit and doubt the authorities and experts who are responsible for our safety. Dysfunction and problems add up. Instead of panic, we need to re-evaluate our identity and our reason and purpose for living. Are these limited to our career or are they much broader and deeper and involve all aspects of our lives? Also, we need to identify an ambitious, desirable future that answers the questions: What kind of person do I want to become? What impact do I want to have? What legacy do I want to create?

The current pandemic closely resembles the Mann Gulch disaster. We face a fast moving virus that is consuming everything in its path and threatens to overwhelm us, our medical system, and our lives. If we continue to do things as we have always done, if we fail to adapt to a paradigm of survival, if we fail to maintain enter personal dialogue and feedback on the situation, if we lose our identity as human beings, but choose to view ourselves as victims of circumstance, if we ignore sound sensemaking guidance, if we become inconsiderate of others, then our teams and our support systems for survival will disintegrate and we will self-destruct. But if we take appropriate action, we will find a way through the chaos and uncertainty.

Five Actions for Adapting to Chaos and Uncertainty

Navigating these uncertain, uncharted waters requires five actions. First, let go of the past. What we knew as normal is gone. The longer we hold onto it, the more we are vulnerable to stress, anxiety, frustration, and fear and hinder our ability and our need to adapt to a new normal. Instead of being closed to change, be open to adaptation.[2] Observe the many people in your network expending so much energy to get back to a normal that cannot be achieved rather than focusing that energy on adapting to the disruptive environment.

Second, improvise by “figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you currently think.”[3] Dodge applied his knowledge of the nature of fire to start the escape fire, which consumed the fuel the wildfire needed, and created a safe space for him and his team to survive. What is the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fuel the virus and pandemic needs to destroy us? In what ways can we exercise that fuel and find a safe place for survival? The virus needs people in order to spread and kill. Therefore, we must practice physical distancing and restrict our movements, and practice sterile hygiene. We must avoid the sources of fear, anxiety, stress, and worry. Watching the negative news for extended periods of time feeds the panic of the pandemic. We can apply the wisdom discovered in other stressful and threatening experiences to this crisis. Engage in activities that are meaningful and enhancing to our existence as human beings, exercising our emotional, mental, and spiritual muscles. Reflect on the ways your could use your past experiences, education, skills, and expertise in fresh ways. Consider the positive and encouraging activities we can add to our daily routine – send messages of encouragement, pray and meditate, begin a new hobby, complete that postponed project, start a virtual support group, and connect regularly online with family and friends. In other words redirect the energy we are expending by worrying about the pandemic to beneficial, meaningful activities.

Third, network. Maintain and nurture your personal and professional relationships. Although we are limited in social interaction, we can maintain the various elements of our social network and continue to contribute our role. The smoke jumper team could have increased their chances of survival if each member imagined the others’ roles, developed courses of action, and communicated with the others. What are the unfulfilled roles and responsibilities each of us could assume to ensure our collective survival? Are your community leaders and managers overwhelmed and unable to perform certain tasks that you could perform? What gaps can we plug and tasks can we perform to enhance our family, community, and organization? Perhaps, reach out to those in your contact list to check on them. Offer to help neighbors with tasks. Provide resources and information for others’ survival. Also, expand your network by reaching out to others in your profession or community to develop mutually supportive relationships, hear their challenges, and discover their lessons. Use your new connections to explore creative and innovative ways of adapting to the uncertainty and chaos.[4]

Fourth, be a learner. Take on an attitude of wisdom by becoming a learner, accepting uncertainty and reality, and not complaining about “the way things should be”. Certainly, this pandemic has disrupted our mindset of the way things should be. But, we can sabotage and constrain our survival by adhering to our mental bias on what the authorities or others should do. Instead of demonstrating skill or expressing how much one knows, our attitude should be of wisdom. Wise people are aware of their ignorance and are not overconfident. Weick quoted McLean, “…if the major purpose of your group is to ‘put out fires so fast they don’t have time to become big ones’, then you won’t learn much about fighting big fires.”[5] He went on to state wisdom is finding balance between “extreme confidence and extreme caution [as] both can destroy what we most need in changing times, namely, curiosity, openness, and complex sensing” (emphasis added).[6] In other words, our focus should not be on resisting the change that this pandemic is going to create in our society and our life, but in discovering ways to adapt to a new context. The pandemic is going to change our world significantly. We need to ask the question “What can I learn and how can I grow to adapt, survive, and thrive?” Based on what you heard from your expanding and exploring network, experiment with various adapting activities and observe the results, paying attention to what works for you. Then, share your results with others.

Fifth, engage respectfully. Survival will require interaction in ways of respectfully sharing our perspectives with each other and discussing the meanings of this pandemic. We must demonstrate respect and trust toward one another, sharing and hearing honest observations of our experience. Survival requires trust, honesty, and respect for self and others. As human beings, all of our experiences are valid. Empathy involves hearing and understanding others’ perspectives, and incorporating that understanding into the ways that we interact with each other. The sharing of perspectives results in collective sensemaking and the development of responses for survival. We can and must be resources to one another. Therefore, we should ask each other, “How is this pandemic affecting you? What does this pandemic mean to you? In what ways is this pandemic changing you and your situation? What are you learning and how are you growing through this pandemic? In what ways are your priorities changing? What is your source of meaning, purpose, and hope?

Panic occurs when there is no meaningful, comprehensive, unifying, permeating vision. When there is a weak vision, we feel threatened, vulnerable, abandoned, resulting in everyone for herself or himself. Our vision should not be that of preserving the economy or getting back to normal. The vision should involve surviving the virus and adapting to a new existence in the presence of the virus.

Weick concludes by stating that teams and organizations, and I would add society and communities, are characterized by collective interdependence. Resilience and survival involve all members collaborating and leaders who: (1) communicate the vision, task, guidelines, standards, expectations, and role responsibilities; (2) do not reinforce the status quo, the routine, and business as usual; (3) model and hold everyone accountable for safety, effective communication, feedback, and cooperation; (4) delegate leadership roles to the ones who have the most expertise in a specific area; and (5) demonstrate humility.

May we be those kind of citizens, leaders, team members, and friends.

Kenneth Williams is the founder of Oyster Leadership Coaching and Consulting, LLC. 

(C) 2020 by Kenneth Williams

[1] Karl E. Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster,” Administrative Science Quarterly 38, no. 4 (December 1993): 628–52,

[2] Deborah Ancona, “The Secret Ingredient for Great Leadership: Sensemaking,” Latin Trade (English) 26, no. 3 (Quarter 2018): 33–33.

[3] Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations.”

[4] Ancona, “The Secret Ingredient for Great Leadership.”

[5] Norman Mclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[6] Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations.”

By Abby Straus

A client once told me how stressed out she was by watching the news. “What’s preventing you from turning it off?” I asked. To which she replied, “I have to stay informed!” This began a conversation about whose script she was working from, hers or someone else’s. Her story went something like this: “If I don’t know about everything that’s going on in the world, I’ll appear uninformed, and people will think less of me.”

I asked what alternative story she might adopt that would support her in lowering stress, which was getting in the way of many things, including working well and enjoying her life. Initially, she was resistant, unable to get her head around the idea that there might be another story to tell.

But then a light went on. “Oh,” she said, “Do you mean that maybe it’s not true about me having to know everything? That I just made it up? Or somebody else made it up and I bought it? “Bingo!”, I said, and patted her on the back. “Now, let’s think up a better story.”

What’s your story? What are you telling yourself that’s keeping you from finding joy, and getting things done in a way that’s safe and sane? Here are some other popular, and equally destructive, stories you might have heard:

  • I’m being selfish if I take time for myself.
  • If I’m not busy all the time, I’m not getting anything done.
  • If I don’t know the answer, I will look weak and stupid.
  • I’m not enough. This one comes in many flavors: thin enough, rich enough, smart enough, sexy enough.
  • I’ll be happy when… (you fill in the blank).

Wow! Who made this stuff up? Actually, it was me, aided, of course, by cultural messages and habits of thought we all pick up if we’re not paying attention. A big shift happened when I became aware of my stories and realized that I could replace them with better ones, like these:

  • When I take time for myself, I’m happier, healthier, and have more to give others.
  • I’m dropping “busy” from my vocabulary. I want to be productive, not busy!
  • Genuine curiosity and willingness to learn are traits that I value and intend to model as a leader.
  • I am enough. (This one is hard, and it helps to recognize that there are entire industries dedicated to convincing us otherwise via every form of media.)
  • I’m looking for things to be happy about right now!

While we can’t control the stories other people tell, or the cultural fishbowl in which we swim, we can interrogate our own thinking. We can identify the narratives we run over and over, ask how they’re serving us; and, if they are not, we can replace them with ones that support us in living our best life.

What’s one story you tell yourself that isn’t serving you? What would you be able to do, and how would you feel, if you stopped telling this story? What new story might you tell that would support you in doing and feeling your best and owning your day?

It reads like a scene from a movie you don’t want your children to see: Global pandemic. Racial killing in cold blood. In public. By an officer of the peace. Followed by riots. Followed by… But wait, this isn’t a movie, and there’s no one coming to save us! That’s our job, you and me. Here are my thoughts on how we start today.

What’s going on here?

Human brains are wired to search for danger: the same brains that our ancestors had back in the time of sabre tooth tigers and marauding bands bearing clubs. Unlike then, however, we are constantly bombarded by what our brains perceive as “danger” in the form of 24-hour news cycles, global connectivity, social media, always-on lifestyles and accelerating change.

This leads to chronic stress and a host of destructive reactions, including the inability to distinguish between real and imagined threats. Scary stories loom large, when we’re stressed, like monsters under the bed. Monsters that may include our boss, our co-workers or our neighbors. They may be people who hold different political or religious views than we do. They may come from cultures with which we are not familiar. In order to protect ourselves, we may draw on the ancient tradition of telling stories about them, based on little or no real understanding of how they feel or what they care about. We cast them as “other” and ultimately less than human.

Sometimes we go public with our fear, on social media, perpetuating memes of separation in the name of righteous ideology. Other times, we hide our othering, ashamed that we, who profess to love our fellow humans, would engage in such a thing. All of which causes more stress and more fear.

We must calm ourselves in order to think clearly and take action that matters.

The first thing that every one of us must do is find a way to calm the cycle of overstimulation and fear that permeates modern life today. We need to train our brains and our bodies to relax, so we can be part of the solution, not the problem.

An excellent way to do this is to adopt a regular mindfulness practice. There are many examples, including meditation, yoga, tai-chi or other martial arts, walking in nature and journaling. The key is to commit and do it every single day. Research has shown, for example, that meditation produces physiological changes in the brain related to positive cognitive and emotional outcomes, including patience, compassion, clarity of thought and the ability to remain calm under pressure.

So start now and keep going. Even better, find one or more people as accountability partners and share the journey. We are also wired to be and do things together, and this alone helps calm us by letting us know we belong.

Now comes the hard part.

Once we calm ourselves down, we can begin the real work of shining the light of our awareness on our own dark places of prejudice and fear. It’s time to get under the bed with a flashlight and take those monsters on. It’s easy to direct our justifiable rage and indignation at what happened to George Floyd, and a lot harder to own each thought we have, each action we take—however small—that perpetuates inequity, inequality, and othering.

We must start by being compassionate with ourselves and with others. Remember, we all have thoughts we’d rather not own, and we all have done things we regret. They do not make us unlovable. They are part of being human. The task is to acknowledge them and begin the process of replacing them with the way we want to be.

Here’s something you can do today.

Find someone you know who is really different from you. Maybe a different gender expression, someone from a different cultural or racial heritage. Explain that you would like to understand their perspective about something (it could be being a parent or working at your company…whatever seems most natural) and invite them to share their views. You can preface your request by saying that you’re practicing being open to the viewpoints of others.

Then, what you do is listen. Really listen. And notice the feelings and thoughts that come up; but let them go. The main thing is to refrain from judging yourself, which only perpetuates stress and fear. You might adopt a phrase to acknowledge your thoughts like “how interesting!”. The next step is to compare experiences and find places to connect around things you care about.

These are excellent practices to help address diversity and inclusion at work. In Equality: Courageous Conversations about Men, Women and Race to Spark a Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough, author Trudy Bourgeois offers an enlightening and compassionate approach to addressing systemic inequality that we all contribute to until we build our awareness and choose a different path.

In times like these, when it can feel like we live in scary movie, we must be disciplined about doing what we can with what we have. We can all start with ourselves, wherever we are, rising to the occasion by building our awareness and shining it with courage and determination at our individual and collective dark corners. Let’s start in our workplaces, learning more about each other, about our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our struggles. Let’s rewrite the script and tell a story about people who dared greatly, to make a great future, together.

To get you started, we would like to offer you a free downloadable meditation.

Amidst the current COVID-19 global pandemic, workers from across sectors and industries are finding themselves telecommuting from their homes. While “working from home (WFH)” has been a rising trend among “knowledge workers” and self-employed “gig workers” in tech-centered industries, for many this is a first in their career. Organizations large and small are trying to grasp the new challenges this creates as we are all forced to disperse and hunker down.

Below are a few essentials to keep in mind as we all try to navigate WFM during this moment:

Keep (or build) a routine. With everyone’s fears and anxieties rising about unknowns in the present and future, it’s more important than ever to keep consistency as a way of finding comfort and familiarity in ever changing circumstances. WFH may feel liberating at first. For many it means saving time from that long commute or space away from difficult colleagues or a flurry of distractions in the office. However, if we do not stick to and master the basics, we can quickly begin to feel like everything is spinning out of control.

That extra time that you find in your morning from not having to commute does not have to be dedicated to sleeping in. Just because this newfound freedom and flexibility allows you to “roll” from your bed to the first conference call of the day, does not mean it is sustainable for your mental wellness or performance. Also, no one wants to see you in your pajamas on the Zoom meeting.

If you were a hard-charging, early riser with a solid exercise regimen and personal development rituals, then stick to it and refine it for new circumstances! If you have struggled to build a consistent routine, now is the perfect time to use that savings in the morning and afternoons to invest in yourself. Start with small, achievable goals and incrementally build your way towards them. Use this time to build long-lasting habits.

Create a space for success! Part of keeping a sense of normalcy is ensuring that you have a workspace at home that enables you to succeed. You do not want to find yourself slinking down on the couch every morning with your smartphone while your spouse or roommate streams Netflix in front of you.

If you do not already have a functional home office or library, try to find another space in your home that is private, quiet, well-lit, and allows you to stay organized. Try to avoid (if possible) places like the dining room table or bedroom that are dedicated for relaxation. You do not want your unfinished work staring at you over dinner or wake-up first thing to it! Ideally, you want a space that at the end of the workday you can shut down, unplug, and close the door to.

If your living quarters are limited in space or if you have multiple persons competing for quiet space to work, get creative. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs or create temporary dividers. Anything that enables you to focus and separates your work from your personal life.

Communication. Right now, everyone is feeling the pressure. Many homes have more than one adult and possibly school-aged children under one roof, all trying to get things done. It’s very important that everyone is open and honest about their needs are and aware that there are competing priorities all around us. Members of the same household should try regular meetings to deconflict schedules and priorities. Through this dialogue, a couple might decide that one spouse should watch the children, while the other works for a set period of time and then trade off. Whatever you work out, prepare to be flexible as circumstances rapidly shift.

As a member of a team at your place of employment, you should also be regularly communicating the challenges you are facing from home and your proposed solutions. This could mean everyone working on a staggered schedule or taking a longer lunch break to go for a walk with family. In order for that to work, everyone needs to be clear what the goals and priorities are for the organization as a whole.

If you are a leader in the organization, be conscious of everyone’s collective anxiety, especially with an uncertain public health and economic forecast. Be prepared to constantly communicate and reinforce your intent to others. Try to set reasonable goals for the team to meet. Old metrics for productivity may not be possible to measure right now. Instead of looking at things from a “9 to 5” hours-worked perspective, take a 360 view of the organization and what needs to happen to weather this storm. Try to measure success by tasks complete, not time in chairs or constant emailing. Instead of routine assignments, use this time to invest in professional development or long-term projects that are often deprioritized during regular periods such as finding new markets and product lines or implementing new technology for process improvement.

A few great reads for learning how to lead teams through complex circumstances is Team of Teams by Stanley McCrystal and One Mission by Chris Fussell. Emphasized in both books is the importance of leaders communicating their intent throughout their organization including to geographically dispersed teams. Both provide excellent case studies and tested tools to implement within your organization.

As many of us hunker down in virtual work environments to try to keep each other healthy, our long-time collaborators, David Emerald and Donna Zajonc at TED* (The Empowerment Dynamic), send us all a wonderful reminder: 

… social distancing does NOT mean social disconnection.

We can all do our part to stay in touch with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues during this trying period. David and Donna, recommend the following 7 points to help keep each other out of Drama and move us into the Empowerment Triangle:   

  1. Tell the truth about the current reality of this pandemic. Rather than focusing on blame, resisting, or trying to control things not in your control, surrender to the truth of this situation, even though there is much we don’t understand or know.

  2. Self-care is world care. Take responsibility for your self-care, which will help build your immune system by getting adequate sleep and nourishing food. Without a self-care plan there’s a higher risk of succumbing to fear and the Dreaded Drama Triange (DDT), which only feeds the same in others.

  3. Avoid drama conversations. One “social distance” we heartily recommend is not to engage in “ain’t it awful” exchanges, gossip, or passing on stories of doom and gloom.

  4. Be intentional about reaching out and connecting. Each morning ask yourself, “Who can I connect with today?”

  5. Share what you are grateful for, when you do connect. When others hear your gratitude list it helps evoke a positive feeling in them. Ask what they are grateful for. A gratitude practice will train your mind to look for the good, rather than feed the fear.

  6. Focus on what brings you joy and creates nourishing moments. When your heart sings there’s little room for fear.

  7. Above all be kind, patient, and compassionate. We have no idea what is going on in the life of others, so let’s give each other a break!

Read the full article here

Experience the latest TED* (the Empowerment Dynamic) work with the 3 Vital Questions to transform workplace drama, supported by a new book by David Emerald.

M&B principal, Abby Straus, is a 3 Vital Questions (3VQ)-certified trainer and we collaborate with other 3VQ practitioners throughout the country. We have incorporated 3VQ frameworks into a number of cohort-based leadership programs and offer several stand-alone workshops including virtual delivery format. 

Contact us to learn more about how you can create more Empowerment and less Drama in your team or organization. 


All leaders, from the executive down to the team level, should view themselves as stewards of their organization’s most valuable resource: their people. As the person in the lead, others will be looking at how you set the tone and pace of the organization.

In too many organizations today, extra hours and days worked are seen as badges of honor. We often get dragged into competition with colleagues over who stayed the latest or showed up on the weekend. Mobile and remote technology can add fuel to the competition as emails zing back and forth long after most have officially ended their workday. All of this supposedly signals who is most dedicated or should be promoted within the organization.

We all want to be passionate about our work and feel valued within our organizations. Sometimes this does mean contributing extra hours for a special event, new initiative, or emergency situation but the grinding 24/7 “always-on” work culture cannot be sustained, not without diminishing returns for the organization as a whole. And it’s not just our place of work that suffers but also our health, our families, and our communities.

Few people alive today have as impressive of a resume as Robert M. Gates. His multidecade career in public service took him to the top of the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense. In addition, he also served as president of Texas A&M University, national president of the Boy Scouts of America, and on numerous corporate boards… to keep it brief.

In Gates’ book A Passion for Leadership, he discusses a practice he established for himself and others as both Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Secretary of the Department of Defense. These cabinet-level positions were demanding and answerable directly to the President. Gates explained that, absent a meeting at the White House or national crisis, he would try to leave the office by 6:00 P.M. every night. Quite often, as head of these expansive agencies, he would have additional work to finish at home. However, by leaving the office he signaled to staff that it was okay for them to leave as well, to spend much needed time with families and to rest. He knew that as long as he stayed in his office, others would too and work late into the night. Over time, this would lead to worn out staff making “bad decisions and giving bad advice.”

For these same reasons, Gates said he always used vacation time: three weeks in August as CIA director, two weeks in the summer and one at Christmas as defense secretary, and four weeks as president of Texas A&M. As Gates said about his time-off:

“I always returned from vacation with a yellow tablet full of ideas and initiatives for further change and reform.” It’s about recharging so we can use our creative energy and talents most effectively.”

Mobile technology and remote working options have created new challenges for escaping this “always-on” frenzied work culture. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the bleeding between work and home life.  How many of us still respond to phone calls, text messages, and emails after leaving the office or “logging off” for the day? How many of us go to bed and wake up checking work messages? Has your weekend ever started off on the wrong foot because a colleague fired off a heated email at 7:00 PM on a Friday night? Ever take a quick “peak” at your work email or “check-in” from a family vacation? Our modern working lives do not have to be like this!

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to setting boundaries and expectations in the workplace, as a leader you set the tone and pace for your organization. Make sure your expectations are clear to everyone and lead by example.

In the spirit of Gates’ 6:00 PM Rule, below are a few ideas to consider when setting expectations and guidelines for use of mobile technology and remote working within your organization:

  1. Avoid checking work communications outside of set hours
    • Turn-off work devices at home
    • Uninstall work email apps over long weekends and vacations
    • Ask: do I really need work email and related apps installed on my personal phone?
  2. Be mindful of colleagues’ personal time by not sending message outside of set hours. This can create a ripple effect and breed unhealthy competition where everyone is engaging in work at all hours
  3. If working later than other members of team, use your DRAFT folder and schedule send times for the next business day
  4. If “on-call” or working to meet deadline, the team should set a clear start and end time/date
    • Set clear expectations for what needs to happen in these special circumstances
    • Use leave time immediately following any extra demanding periods

Most importantly, as leaders, be the champions of cultural change in your organization. Set the example. Go home, unplug, and rest up. Then encourage others to join you so we can all give 100% when it matters most.

This article is the part of a series on how to most effectively manage our time and attention for the work that matters most. Subsequent articles will continue to look at technology and how we interact together in organizations. Check back later for more!

Opportunities & Challenges

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is one of the largest and most complex major projects being undertaken today. Nine partner nations and multiple American military and industry partners work together in a high VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment to produce a product upon which the lives of service men and women around the world depend.

Effective leadership is required across the organization, and organization systems themselves must constantly be upgraded to allow for the most efficient and effective work to take place.

What we did:
In collaboration with Defense Acquisition University (DAU) and F-35 Program Office Senior Leadership, M&B co-developed the Enterprise Cohort Leadership Program (ELCP), an ongoing cohort program to support leaders across the F-35 enterprise in being and doing their best.

ELCP is a condensed program of sixteen weeks, comprising one half-day per week with workplace learning assignments back on the job, and a capstone project to scope an initiative that will have significant impact on the learners’ leadership development and business/mission outcomes for the enterprise.

The program is designed to maintain a consistent base of frameworks and also to evolve as needs change.

Eleven cohorts have been completed with over 200 participants who now share common leadership language and frameworks with which to positively influence work across the organization. A cadre of coaches is in place to offer ongoing support to colleagues and to further the work going forward.

Opportunities & Challenges

The Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP) is an NSF-funded program whose goal is to increase the number of domestic students receiving doctoral degrees and entering the professoriate in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with a particular focus on recruiting, supporting and mentoring students of population groups underrepresented in STEM fields (i.e., African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders).

While participants in NEAGEP receive world-class technical training, there is frequently less emphasis placed on preparing participants for roles as leaders and collaborators, both in their education and in their chosen professions.

What we did:
At the request of a NEAGEP leader at UMass Amherst, M&B developed a one-day introductory leadership training for a cohort of STEM grad students. The training included individual and team leadership topics and a module on systems thinking to assist participants in understanding whole-of-organization perspectives.

Opportunities & Challenges:

The Excelsior Service Fellowship, created by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013, is an initiative to attract the “best and brightest” of recent graduates from law, graduate, and professional schools to NYS government service. Each fellow, bringing a diverse background and skill sets, is placed for two years in a policy or operational position within the executive branch.
Tasked with working on some of the most pressing issues facing New York State, Excelsior Fellows required the right tools and frameworks to lead in the 21st Century.

What we did:
Over five months in 2017, M&B provided a multi-session Leadership Development Program for some 50 fellows serving throughout NYS government. Session topics included:

  • Leading in a Complex World
  • Forming and Leading Teams
  • Leader as a Facilitator
  • Working Well with Stakeholders
  • Leading Organizational Change

In addition to the above topics, fellows also inventoried stresses in their personal and professional lives that inhibited performance and effective team leadership. M&B presented mindfulness as a tool for focusing on the present moment, while not reacting to all the stressors that enter our daily lives. Participants were led through a 10-minute guided meditation.

Each fellow was tasked with creating an individual “leadership development plan” and a “project plan” to implement throughout the five month program. Projects were identified based on actual opportunities and challenges within the workplace. In between sessions, fellows worked with their supervisors and teams to reach clear and measurable results with their projects during the 5-month program.

It can be challenging to interact with people whose perspectives and opinions differ from ours, but there are many benefits, including making us smarter. In this Washington Post entry, Gregory Rodriguez explains why this is so.