Keeping Morale Afloat

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

How do you keep the teams’ — and your own — morale, hopes, energy, and creativity up when times get intense?

I loved last week’s article on seeking the positive personal growth that results from the discomfort zone. Sometimes though, outside pressures can get intense or potentially morale-reducing for yourself or for your team. For example, we recently went through a pretty large round of layoffs that had a lot of my team saying goodbye to good friends, along with the additional pressures of getting our pivot product to market quickly. How do you keep the teams’ — and your own — morale, hopes, energy, and creativity up when the discomfort zone gets intense?

Keeping a positive mindset is incredibly difficult to do when the pressure to succeed feels like the open ocean around you. I’m sorry to hear that your and your team recently went through layoffs. That’s hard.

Still, if you can’t manage to remain with your head above the water, if you can’t be optimistic or hold onto some small fragment of hope that you *will* succeed, then you won’t. We don’t do well at fooling ourselves. If you wake up every morning feeling stressed out and cynical and disempowered, you won’t do your best work. And without good work, no team can succeed. This is why, when things get tough and you are in the discomfort zone, managing what’s going on in your head is the single most important thing you can do. Here’s what I tell myself when I’m caught in the deep end:

  • Focus on the good: in times of stress and pressure, it feels like everything is on the verge of falling apart. Our product isn’t successful right now. We have to make cuts to reduce the budget. Our manager, or a few beloved teammates, are gone. The press is writing horrible articles about us. All that may be true, but it’s not the complete story. There are also things that your company does well that is worth your pride and admiration. Maybe your coworkers are amazing people. Maybe your team’s mission is noble and inspiring. Maybe you and your team don’t know everything yet, but you’re fast learners and grit is your middle name. If optimism should spring from anywhere, it’ll be from what you do well. So talk about that. Bond with your team over that. Don’t try to drag up your weaknesses. Instead, ride forth on your strengths.
  • Look for opportunities to step back and reduce pressure: I notice that when I feel a great deal of stress, I tend to default to doing everything Now! Faster! More! I’ll stay up late, fire off more emails, and use charged language like “It’s really critical we…” or “We’re making a big mistake if we…” What I’m starting to realize, though, is that adding to the pressure doesn’t help. It’s the equivalent of running faster on a treadmill: you work harder and sweat more, but you don’t go any farther. Good, creative work doesn’t come out of fear of failure or pressure to perform. In fact, you tend to favor more conservative ideas and make compromises that water down the soul of what you are trying to do. So check your habits and those of others around you. Push back if you need to. The goal is to do great work so what’s getting in the way of that? Does the tone in that e-mail need to be so urgent? Does the deadline need to be as tight? Will things be better if you and your peers give yourselves a little bit of breathing room to step back and think instead of reacting in a frenzy to everything as quickly as you possibly can?
  • Ask for support, and give support to others. Because it’s hard to do good, creative work when you feel like you’re operating in a tiny room with the walls closing in you, one of the most helpful things you can do is find people who can connect you with your most idealistic vision of what’s possible, who can spark new ideas in you, and who can give you some much-needed perspective when you’re feeling down and stuck. We all need support. If you’re feeling particularly enterprising, consider setting up a group or recurring event where people on your team who may be going through similar rollercoasters can help each other listen, relate, and provide advice.

Try the above tips, but keep a close eye on how you’re feeling over time. If you find that over the course of three months, you have more days when you end your work day drained and unhappy versus accomplished and optimistic, it’s time to reassess. Do you need more help? Do you need a different environment? Do you need to take a break? At the end of the day, your life is not a destination but a journey, and if what the thing you spend the majority of your waking hours doing is negatively affecting your physical and mental health, it probably isn’t worth it.

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