I love December. It's my favorite month because it usually means two of my favorite things are happening: (1) reflection on the most meaningful parts of our lives, and (2) vision casting for the future and setting big goals.
But as a person who loves the rhythm of the seasons and the closure that the new year brings, this December has felt so strange to me. In many ways, it doesn't feel like the year is even going to end.
In a typical December, you can feel the energy that comes when people reflect on and close the chapter of one year and look forward to the possibilities of a new year. There is a sense of gratitude for the past and a hope for the future.
And we often feel this in our workplaces as well. Organizations spend time and resources on end-of-year activities, celebrations, and tangible gifts and rewards for team members. These are all great ways to communicate care and support.
But in most cases, the positive and celebratory tone that many organizations take during December will inevitably fall flat this year. Because this year is weird. It isn't that our team members don't want or need the positivity or celebration.
It's just that it won't strike the right chord if it isn't accompanied by messages that acknowledge the difficulties behind and ahead of us as a result of 2020.
So what tone should we take this December so that we can reflect on the past year in meaningful ways and look forward with hope to 2021? That question is at the heart of this blog.
Below are three messages we all need to be communicating to our team members in the next few weeks. Our hope is that you will take the time to send these messages to your unique team members, all of whom have experienced this year in different ways.
Message # 1 - "It's okay to feel what you're feeling right now."
Our team members are likely feeling a wide array of emotions and processing the events of this year in unique ways. Some of our people might have experienced the death of a family member, friend, or work colleague. Others might have experienced significant financial hardship this year. Still others might be struggling with feelings of isolation, loneliness, or depression. As we've worked recently to help clients process their professional years, a common emotion we've heard expressed is apathy, which can result in disengagement or even cynicism in the workplace.
All of these emotions are understandable. And our team members need to hear us say it so that they know they aren't alone and that what they're experiencing right now is understandable. There is so much power in naming things, especially our emotions.
In your next 1:1 check-in meetings, give your team members some space to reflect on how they're feeling about this year coming to a close. Give them an opportunity to process the challenges they've faced or express their grief, apathy, anxiety, or cynicism. Make sure you communicate that they are safe to discuss how they're really doing and that it's okay to feel the way they're feeling.
Ask your team members which end-of-year rituals or traditions would serve them well and which wouldn't. As a team, decide on the ways in which you can mark the end of the year in meaningful ways, while still acknowledging that significant challenges remain.
As the leader, it's important you also take the time to share how you are feeling and processing things, because when your team members know that you understand what they might be feeling, you build trust and create psychological safety for them.
Also, make sure you are watching for signs of depression, listening for expressions of hopelessness, and paying attention to any significant changes in your team members that could signal they need additional care and support. Research is showing us that depression, anxiety, and alcohol/substance abuse has skyrocketed because of COVID-19. Make yourself aware of any mental health resources your organization provides and familiarize yourself with additional resources available through the CDC. Click here for more information.
So many are struggling deeply right now – be the kind of leader who notices and offers your help.
Message #2 - "You've been a crucial part of our team this year."
Your team members have been navigating a season of their professional lives that has been anything but normal. So it's no surprise that, according to the Gallup Organization, we're currently experiencing the most significant drop in employee engagement in 20 years.
Our people are likely tired and discouraged. This isn't to say that everyone feels this way in equal measure of course. But, in general, our team members need praise and recognition now more than ever. We're not talking about inauthentic praise or toxic positivity that minimizes the challenges everyone is facing. Instead, our team members need to hear that, despite the challenges they've faced this year, they've done good work and contributed in meaningful ways.
Give them concrete and individualized praise and recognition – the more specific you can be, the more impact your feedback will have on their confidence and engagement.
Remind your team members of the specific ways their roles contribute to the overall vision and mission of your organization. Don't assume they understand this – especially right now.
Consider creating a space of some kind for your team members to affirm and encourage each other. Whether you meet in person (and socially distance!) or get together over Zoom, taking the time for peer-to-peer recognition that is specific and individualized will have a big impact.
Message #3 - "The work you do still makes a difference and there are good things ahead for us."
One of the most important things a leader does is cast vision and create hope. During a season like we're in right now, it's hard to look forward to the new year. And while it's hard to know when things will start to return to "normal," we can and should still lean into vision, mission, and values to help us recalibrate when the team feels adrift.
Take some time to talk through the question, "Why do we do what we do?" Give everyone a chance to reflect on their "why?" and on the "why?" of the team and organization.
Show them how their work makes a difference in the lives of your customers or clients. Share and celebrate stories of success (even if they feel smaller than usual).
Paint a picture, as best you can, of what the future looks like for your organization, team, and for their individual role. If possible, share your plans for investing in them and their learning and development in 2021.
While we can't solve all of the problems that COVID-19 has presented for our team members and our organizations, we can be the kind of leaders who step out with vulnerability, acceptance, and support when our teams need us most.
By communicating these three messages above, in whatever ways make the most sense for your people, you will demonstrate that you see, hear, understand, and value them – even during this strange and difficult season.
Leader, you need to hear these things too
The best leaders are those who wake up every single day thinking about how they can best serve their team members. Unfortunately, though, this sometimes means that leaders don't take care of themselves in the same ways they take care of their team members.
And I'm willing to bet that if you've read this article, you're the kind of leader who might struggle with this too.
This season has been HARD for leaders. It's been hard for everyone of course, but there's no denying that leaders have had to navigate the impossible this year – for themselves and for their teams. There is a lot to feel and a lot to process.
So our final call to action for you is to take some time this week to reflect on your own emotions and experiences, remind yourself that your worth isn't found in your leadership effectiveness or your team's KPIs, and reconnect yourself to your larger "why?" By taking care of yourself, you are better positioned to care well for those around you.
Here's to the hope that the new year brings.
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