If you feel like you’re regressing, you’re not alone

By Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Monday June 29, 2020


As you confront the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, remember to take a step back and make sure your team gets through the inevitable regression phase — which is the most dangerous phase for teams, writes Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg for the Harvard Business Review.

“I hate to say this right now, but I haven’t felt this energised in years,” one of the CEOs I advise admitted to me during the first week of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

For many of my clients, the first weeks of managing the crisis felt extremely meaningful and energising. But a few weeks later, they all reported that something had happened to their energy and to the way their teams were collaborating. The adrenaline-fueled pace of the initial crisis response began sputtering. Problems became more complex and exhausting. The varnish started to crack. The glory faded. Fuses were short.

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What explains this shift? In my experience as a psychologist and executive adviser, I’ve found that crises follow a rough pattern: emergency, regression and recovery.

In the beginning, as the urgency of the situation becomes clear, team energy rises and performance goes up. In this phase leaders tend to become the best version of themselves, and teams instinctively pull together and become highly productive. Few people question the leaders’ authority, and teams work in hectic, but harmonious, ways.

Then the second phase hits: a regression phase, during which people get tired, lose their sense of purpose, start fighting about the small stuff and forget to do basic things like eating. The concept of regression comes from developmental psychology and describes how people roll back to a less mature stage when faced with pressure. Regression is one of the mind’s ways to defend itself from confusion and insecurity by retreating to an emotional comfort zone.

Regression is the most dangerous phase for teams. We see that clearly in combat psychology: The most stressful events for soldiers aren’t the dangerous active missions. They actually involve waiting: repairing equipment, handling administrative tasks, not being able to use their particular skills. It turns out that boredom, lack of new experiences and monotony can be much more stressful than combat.

The same war-room fatigue is affecting many leaders and teams right now. It’s real and infectious, and it hits you like a hammer from one day to the next. This regression phase is unavoidable. The challenge for leaders is to pull through it in a constructive way and get to the recovery phase to reopen, rebuild and prepare for the future. Here is how.

First, you need to identify how deep you and your team are into the regression phase. If you’re unsure, you might look for evidence in meetings: Energy will drop, decisions will take longer, and conflict may arise about the small stuff. You can also look to yourself for indicators. As a leader, has your sense of conviction faded? Are you tired? Do you have urges to withdraw? Does your temper flare uncharacteristically?

Second, you can to make three key moves to pull your team out of a regression:

1. Disrupt the team and create a new ‘day one’

One CEO I advise felt stuck in the regression phase, so she decided to change radically the way her team worked. She announced that she would take a step back to make sure that she had the time and space to take the long view, and that she expected her executive team members to act as if they were the CEO on a day-to-day basis. She also introduced a new structure with new roles for each of the team members. One person was assigned the role of “CEO of acute, day-to-day crisis management.” Another was asked to act as “CEO of the recovery phase.” With a clear mandate, those who had been assigned new roles quickly became motivated and energised. And the CEO had time to focus on the major issues faced by the company.

Even if you are not a CEO, the tactic can work: You can release energy by resetting you team structure and assigning new responsibilities to capable team members, allowing them to crosscut stale hierarchies, rigid role definitions and red tape.

2. Learn how to calibrate your team’s emotions

Another method to get through the regression phase involves identifying a team’s arousal level, an indicator of one’s readiness to perform tasks in a timely and effective manner. Think of it in terms of a thermostat that needs to be regulate. Start by asking yourself: Am I too hot emotionally, or too cool and passive? Rate yourself on a scale from 0 to 10. When you are leading through a crisis, the optimal place to be is in the range of 6-8: alert and ready to act, but not manic.

The same scale questioning can also be used by your team. Groups I work with have found it useful to start team meetings by asking: “What’s your number today?” In most cases, merely sharing your number sets in motion the conversation and support needed to move up the scale again.

3. Aim beyond business as usual

In a crisis, the textbook expectation of business leaders is to do all that is necessary to protect the value of their organisation. But sometimes going beyond that survival-first instinct is what can make your team see the light again and pull out of regression.

The best performing leaders I’ve observed during this crisis are spending their time thinking and talking about how their organisation can help solve the biggest problems the pandemic is unearthing. Instead of working through all the immediate clutter, they are facing the future, anticipating what’s next and where they can provide the most value. In crisis psychology, we call this reorientation.

Reorientation is the trigger that directs your team’s attention toward the recovery phase. You change the question from “How can we handle the crisis?” to “How can we move out of the crisis?” Reorientation starts with changing the focus of your team from the short-term risks to your organisation’s bigger-picture contribution and longer-term opportunities. Carving out team time to look ahead and talk about the next big moves can help your people gain energy, feel challenged and reunite around a shared aspiration.

Teams will remember their leaders’ actions and decisions during a crisis — good and bad — for years to follow. As you confront the consequences of the pandemic, remember to take a step back and make sure your team gets through the inevitable regression phase. This phase is uncomfortable, but also useful because it can raise the toughest questions, bring forth new answers and reset expectations to more realistic levels. Only then can you start charting the road to recovery and emerge from the crisis as a stronger team and a stronger company.

(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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