Everyone’s Sad and Getting Sadder
How managers can help in truly difficult times
At an early morning call for a Slack group I help admin, my friend Avery suggested we prompt the community for ways to help parents through their stress and isolation during this never-ending pandemic. I bat my eyes exactly two beats before they welled with tears and a lump lodged in my throat. I told myself it was fatigue, but this was in fact the first time after months of balancing everyone’s needs but my own that someone had said to my face: How can we help you endure? It didn’t matter what the ideas were and it didn’t matter how or if they even happened. In that moment, I felt seen, and that was what I didn’t know I needed. It was a powerful gesture of human kindness for Avery to say it out loud.
Melissa Nightingale, partner at Raw Signal Group and leader of leaders, writes of the asterisk that has crept into people’s lives, a wedge between people and their managers. As a manager myself, I find this both fascinating and alarming.
We talk to the non-founder, non-C-suite bosses and employees. How are you?, we ask. How are things going? And what comes back is this.
We’re doing ok.*
We’re all healthy.*
You see it? That asterisk*? You can hear it in their voices. You might be able to hear it in your own. As more of us are joining town hall meetings from in front of our shower curtains, the asterisk is a way to reclaim some space between us and our work.
So it struck me: Why aren’t we all asking those questions, and digging through the asterisks? Isn’t this what leadership is — recognizing need, like Avery did, and jumping in? What can we do, how can we help? Because in our teams at work, whether we are parents, friends, children, grandchildren or neighbors, we each have responsibilities to our communities that are in tension with our responsibilities to work. These difficult asterisks. What can we as managers do to help remove that unnecessary difficulty?
I think about what I normally do as a manager when there is an asterisk, and it doesn’t quite apply. Under normal circumstances I would seek to better understand my colleague’s needs. I would try to forge a better connection between us. I would align the work with this person’s needs, something to light their fire. But this is impossible. Who am I to understand a lifetime of experienced structural racism and how that feels in this moment, now that it’s obvious to people who haven’t been paying attention? Who am I to understand the rifts in communities, the immovable hardships of families, the pit of grief when we have lost someone? I cannot understand those things. I cannot repair those things.
But I can listen. I can not only empathize, I can be compassionate, and I can spur policy changes that can help everyone. I can ask the questions and at minimum, help someone feel seen.
Compassionate ways for managers to reduce stress in their teams
Now that the weeks of the pandemic have stretched into months, for the first time in my career I am nonplussed with my performance as a designer and less sure of my performance as a human being. Perhaps you face similar questions: Am I showing up for people in the way that they need me? Could I be asking more? Could I be naming the specific burdens people have, as Avery did for me?
In sitting with these questions, a few directives seem clear. Many of these I’ve failed at; nobody is perfect. But I’d like to keep striving for better. We all deserve it.
A note for managers who are used to delivering results in measured numbers: This may require a shift in mindset toward another kind of success metric, but surviving, healing, and being seen are important parts of being human right now. I have seen kindness between colleagues have unexpected payoffs. And I believe now is the time for radical compassion.
Humanize deadlines and evaluations
Do your people have dependents: children or parents or neighbors or friends or … anyone? Do they have obligations outside of work? Are they a human? Do they read the news? (Of course they are; of course they do.) Whatever a person’s situation, it’s stressful simply being alive right now. I guarantee the human who depends on you in some shape or form could use a break. A break from expectation and scrutiny, from deadlines and pressure. And you can give it to them. So you should.
Don’t ask reports for too much. Don’t expect unreasonable results. Be mindful of when your requests are extreme. Be flexible. Be understanding. Adapt to their needs. Advocate for your team’s needs. Don’t assume their needs aren’t important — if they ask for it, it’s important. What’s unimportant to you may in fact be their world. And take it easy on yourself so that you can take it easy on others.
The common thread there is to dial it back. Notice when you’re dialing it up, catch yourself, and bring it back to ground level.
As for annual performance reviews? Like report cards, how can we believe this to be a fair process right now? There should be a clear way to assess comp increases and deliver feedback in a healthy way, but individual evaluations should be conducted within the context of everything else that is going on. And where feedback is required, do the work to make it clear and actionable so there is no further burden of miscommunication.
“My PMA Day motto: only a monster brings new feedback to a performance review.”
Take the heat
We may not all be able to provide dramatically flexible, blanket company policies, but what every manager has is some level of autonomy, and that is a power dynamic that can trickle down to your team. If you can take the heat for someone, do it.
Let them miss the meeting. Let them show up late. Let them step out early. Let them take an afternoon to get groceries. Let let them receive their unexpected guests graciously and without consequence. Let them do these things without asking. Encourage them to do it. Show them how to do it, even!
Me? I decided yesterday to take the next three days off work. This is in fact how I am managing to complete this article. I postponed my meetings to next week. Everything can wait. And people waiting on me for stuff, they’ll get it. Just a week later. My mental health has to come first, like others’ mental health has to, too.
Plan from abundance
Make decisions around your team from a place of abundance. There is not a finite amount of kindness, care, creativity, or even power.
What do you have as a manager that your team does not? Power to make decisions. Autonomy to arrange your schedule. Access to other people with those things. If we can give from the sources that make us strong, we lower the ladder and give others strength, too. Encourage connections and the sharing of strengths and resources between your team members rather than division or unnecessary competition.
If we lead while teetering on the edge of things about to fall apart, they will collapse from underneath us. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand: We will be fine. And if you believe otherwise, ask yourself, what will truly happen if we miss this deadline, if we don’t do this work, if we disappoint someone? Perhaps one of the few benefits of the pandemic has been its clarifying nature; we have what we need, and some to spare. We just have to notice and share intentionally.
The older I get the less important work becomes in the grand scheme of things (an incredibly privileged position, and not one that everyone – including our most vulnerable workers – can take). For many of us in tech who have believed ourselves and our work to be very Important and Critical, this is especially true now. How much does work matter if you are not alive or healthy? How much does work matter if your loved ones are not alive or healthy? I have believed in the past that this perspective is one that develops with trips around the sun, but maybe it’s just exposure to the heat. And the amount of heat is growing by the day. We are collectively experiencing a trauma that, hopefully, shines a light on things that really matter to us. Sometimes that is work, and sometimes it isn’t. Both of those are ultimately okay.
Most people just cannot take anything more, not one drop more of stress or strain. Sometimes the pressure of performing even the smallest acts of self-care is what finally makes the bottom fall out.
So take it easy. And if you can, remind someone that whether they “do” or they “don’t” doesn’t matter as much as they think it does. It eases the pressure, which we could all use a little less of.
Let them cope the way they need
There is a pleasure (of course there is) in spending our days doing gratifying hard work. Some people are riding this wave. Letting it carry them. And I say, let them do exactly that if that is how they deal. But maybe they need something else. Find out.
Your job as a manager is to help people get out of their own way, so one of the tricks is to recognize how people cope with extreme or enduring stress differently. Sometimes folks need to dive into their work, and sometimes folks need to step away, and often that will differ depending on the mood and situation. As a manager, you can open up the possibilities for either and help prevent their job from getting in the way of their life, not the other way around.
And if your manager isn’t giving you the same reprieve? Be the buffer. Do it anyway. That’s the job.
Lastly, ask for what you need
The truth is, most people don’t know what you need without you telling them. Sometimes knowing what it is you need is the hardest part, but verbalizing it can also be difficult. It’s important to bear this in mind for both your reports and yourself.
I would encourage managers to muster up the gumption to traverse that entire conversation yourself, from figuring out what you need to expressing it. Because when we achieve something for ourselves as leaders it trickles through the organization as the realization of accommodations we didn’t know were possible for everyone.
Here’s a good example: When I was working at Mozilla, I was the first Foundation employee to go on maternity leave. When I came back to work I needed a room to pump breast milk. Of course this was required by law (in Canada anyway), but some employees were using the mother’s room as storage space. I had it cleared out, got Ops to add a refrigerator, and the room is still being used today by new moms.
Another more recent example came at the beginning of the pandemic. Several managers across the US were set to fly into HQ for quarterly planning in late February, right as cases were beginning to rise in NYC. We ultimately decided, using our privilege and mandate as leaders, to cancel our travel plans and do the planning remotely, a decision that led to the early closure and 100% remote work policy for the whole company. Likely a gesture that kept everyone safe and healthy.
Is there something else you need to help balance your lives with work, to get through this whole, perhaps something you are afraid to ask for? It could be that others need it too.
What would you ask for, were your manager truly listening? How could your manager be showing up for you in this moment, and of course, how can we show up for others?
Credit for the original, lovely asterisk concept, as noted by Raw Signal Group, goes to Saadia Muzaffar.